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Good Night, And Good Luck (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Good Night, and Good Luck.


Starring David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, George Clooney, Tate Donovan, Tom McCarthy, Matt Ross, Reed Diamond, Robert John Burke, Grant Heslov, Alex Borstein, Rose Abdoo, Glenn Morshower, Don Creech, Helen Slayton-Hughes, Robert Knepper, JD Cullum, Simon Helberg, Peter Jacobson and Dianne Reeves.

Screenplay by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

Directed by George Clooney.

Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.  90 minutes.  Rated PG.

Hollywood films are so often created and marketed towards the younger demographics that it is sometimes shocking when a truly adult movie is made.  A movie about important, serious, mature men and women doing vital work to make the world a better place; this is still a rarity.

Another thing that is rather shocking about this film is its stately, measured, considered pace.  In a cinematic world where audiences have the attention span of a goldfish, it is a brave stylistic choice — made even doubly risky by filming the movie in black and white.  This is necessary due to an important decision they made with the film, instead of hiring actors to play some vital historical roles they splice in real news footage of 50s personalities and stories, in particular of the infamous Vermont senator Joseph McCarthy.  McCarthy is pretty much remembered in history as an irrational legislator who turned the Cold War into his own personal witch hunt.  (Though the argument seems to still simmer long after communism has fallen, one review I saw of this film insisted that McCarthy was completely correct in his beliefs, he was just wrong in his methods of dealing with the problem.)

Good Night, and Good Luck was the story of one of the most famous journalistic showdowns in history — the early television outing of Senator McCarthy’s methods by pioneering CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his journalistic team (which includes George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Reed Diamond and Tate Donovan).  Murrow and his staff recognized the danger of McCarthy’s unhinged power and used his own words to hang him, politically speaking.  It was a huge moment in both journalistic history and American history.  Hats off to co-writer/director/supporting actor Clooney for creating a film that is not only worthy of the story, but one that easily lives up to the legendary face-off.

The Murrow-McCarthy confrontation was a war of words that ended up bringing down both men — McCarthy was disgraced and Murrow’s broadcasting career never really recovered.  There were tragedies and lives lost, symbolized here by CBS newsman Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who ended up cracking up due to a mixture of poor health and the severe pressure of constant accusations of communist affiliations.

This is a story that is obviously near and dear to co-writer/director/co-star Clooney’s heart.  (Murrow was a hero of his journalist father, Nick Clooney.)  Due to this affection, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov (who also appears as future CBS exec Don Hewitt) have been extraordinarily attentive to details, from the completely realistic sets of 50s television to the fetishistic observation of the facts of the event.  He has also put together an amazing ensemble cast, led by the Oscar-worthy work of Strathairn who has to juggle the certainty of being the face of the story and the self-doubt of whether his views will bring down his network, his friends or himself.

Of course, the film is all the more trenchant because many of the beliefs being debated in the halls of power and the studios of CBS back in 1954 are still relevant today.  Often the parallels with the current White House administration are spooky — McCarthy’s insistence that anyone who disagrees with his beliefs are communists seem spookily similar to the early Iraq war “you’re-either-with-us-or-you’re-against-us” propaganda.  The communist trials, the lack of civil rights and the government’s ability to skirt the need for evidence bring to mind an earlier version of The Patriot Act.

Writers Clooney and Heslov are all too aware of the parallels between McCarthyism and the current political climate.  They are not shy to create speeches for Murrow and his co-workers to point out the importance of civil liberties and human tolerance — in fact, as good as the movie is and as valid the points are that it is making, that is the film’s one slight weakness.  The points have been made, and they have been made convincingly.  The audience doesn’t have to be hit over the head with it.  People open to the message will grasp it in the story.  People who disagree will inevitably continue to disagree or not even recognize the correlation, no matter how much the film stacks the deck.

However, in one astounding scene, the film actually acknowledges this slight bias.  While CBS head William Paley (a fantastic performance by veteran Frank Langella) does stand behind his newsman,  despite intense pressure and his own personal doubts, he does suggest that Murrow’s crusade might not be totally pure.  After all, he points out, Murrow has gone out of his way to point out each one of McCarthy’s lies — with the exception of one statement the Senator made about Alger Hiss, one of the occasions that McCarthy’s red-scare paranoia was actually justified.  The statement and tension just floats in the air between them as these two powerhouse thespians say more with no words, just physical discomfort, than many of the most striking speeches.

This film is a reminder, more than anything else, of a time when journalists actually held public officials to a higher standard and were not afraid to question authority.  In a news world where serious journalists unquestioningly repeat government talking points, the truth is not as important as the spin and the corporation decides what is reported (yes, I’m talking about you, Fox News Channel…), seeing journalists taking risks and putting their jobs in jeopardy simply for the public good is the most powerful statement that this film makes.  Years of political hectoring, bad-mouthing, disrespect and huge media conglomerates has rendered the modern press corps relatively toothless.  (The oft-repeated myth that the media is mostly made up of members of the left is at least fifteen to twenty years out of date.)

This lack of accountability upon our public officials (on both sides of the political divide) has stained the reputation of the media and colored the people’s respect of the good work that they do.  The apparent belief seems to be that if a politician says something untrue often enough or stonewalls the press from receiving vital public documents then the media will finally become bored with trying to find out the truth and go back to talking about Terry Schiavo, Mary Kay Letourneau or Michael Jackson.  Signs of a revival of journalistic spirit were raised during the calamitous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when reporters actually started to try to pin down the government on the ineptitude which perhaps led to… at the very least exacerbated… the near-total destruction of a major United States city and cultural center.  Whether that bravery and call for accountability will subside with the waters in the streets of New Orleans, only time will tell.  It may be naïve (in fact it undoubtedly is) to think that this movie can play a large part in fixing what is broken in the Fourth Estate.  However, it can never hurt to remind people of a time when things were better and hope that it will inspire people to raise their expectations and performances.  So in this way, Good Night, and Good Luck is not merely an extremely entertaining film, it might just be a vitally important one, too.  (9/05)

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved. Posted: September 22, 2005.

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