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Good Night, and Good Luck: all the senator's men.

Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) schmoozes onto the screen with a saxophone rendition of Nat 'King' Cole's 'When I Fall in Love'. It's 1950s America and television is in the midst of its glory days. At Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the pride and joy is the news division and its respected team of anchors, reporters, editors and producers.

WE first meet the newsmen, handsome and distinguished in their tuxedos, slick hair and polished shoes, at a 1958 convention dinner for the Radio and Television News Directors Association. They are stars. Doted on by their audience with an adoration previously reserved for screen legends like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, and adventurers such as Lewis and Clark. Indeed they too are explorers, navigating broadcast news into uncharted territory. Together with the other journalists in the room they form the 'fourth estate', a pillar of democracy protected by the constitution of the United States; and tonight, they are listening to one man speak.

Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), the legendary war-time reporter and CBS newsman, is on stage. 'This just might do nobody any good,' he says. 'At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts.' Murrow believes that a cancer has crept its way into the American psyche, and there is a culture of 'decadence, escapism and insulation' among the press.

The film then shifts back in time four years. It is 1954, and Murrow is the anchor of the CBS documentary show, See It Now. Anti-communist paranoia is sweeping America and destroying lives, slandering innocents, and turning families, neighbours and colleagues against one another. The flag-bearer for this wave of hysteria is Joseph Raymond McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin, who is leading the crusade, making allegations aimed at the highest levels of government. Among his statements:

I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five [people] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department. (1)

McCarthy's claims fuel the growing fear of the American public. It doesn't seem to matter that his charges appear to be more fiction than fact, or that his hearings resemble witch-hunts rather than genuine inquiries. In the mind of the senator and his followers, a person is guilty until proven innocent. Just being accused is evidence enough. They view their mission as the ultimate act of patriotism. In the senator's own words: 'McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.'

For a while he seems untouchable, with most journalists reluctant to criticize his methods, fearful that they too will be persecuted. A turning point occurs, however, when U.S. Air Force reservist Lieutenant Milo Radulovich is declared a security risk and ousted from the service. His crime? Refusing to denounce his father and sister, who have alleged ties to the Communist Party.

Edward R. Murrow suspects that McCarthy is behind Radulovich's dismissal. Together with his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and a dedicated CBS media crew--Don Hewitt (Grant Heslov), Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jnr), Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson), Palmer Williams (Tom McCarthy), Jesse Zousmer (Tate Donovan), John Aaron (Reed Diamond), Charlie Mack (Robert John Burke) and Eddie Scott (Matt Ross)--he begins investigating the Lieutenant's case.

The See It Now studio transforms into a war room with a cacophony of clicking typewriters, ringing telephones, and buzzing AP wires. The activity sparks the attention of CBS executive Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels), who's worried that the news show is taking the network into dangerous waters. He warns Murrow that he risks it all if he gets the story wrong. Undeterred, Murrow decides to go for it anyway. As Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King's Men:

He has lived all his life in the idea that there was a time a long time back when everything was run by high-minded, handsome men ... who sat around a table and candidly debated the good of the public thing.... It is because he is a romantic, and he has a picture of the world in his head, and when the world doesn't conform to the picture, he wants to throw the world away. Even if that means throwing out the baby with the bath. (2)

See It Now airs its report on Milo Radulovich and Murrow delivers his signature editorials at the beginning and end of the program. Scrupulously choosing his words, and with the help of cadence, he makes what would become an historic speech:

We will not walk in fear of one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve ... we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it--and rather successfully. Cassius was right: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.' Good night, and good luck. (3)

In the end Murrow exposed McCarthy for the man he was--an emphatic demagogue stuck inside his own caricature--and 'McCarthyism' soon faded from the public consciousness.

Good Night and Good Luck was directed and co-written by actor George Clooney. Clooney, who grew up around the television industry (his father Nick was a newscaster and his aunt Rosemary an actress and singer), shot the picture entirely in black and white, capturing the mood of the period and providing the characters with an air of authority and authenticity.

The film is highly stylized and each scene is carefully crafted and choreographed. With most of the action occurring inside the See It Now studio, Clooney positions projectors, desk lamps, monitors and windows to light the sets, often shooting through glass partitions and manipulating the camera's focus to add depth.

Re-enacting the early days of television is clearly a labour of love for Clooney, and Good Night and Good Luck shares several similarities with his other directorial venture, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), in both its themes and its mischievous sense of humour. The two films clearly enjoy poking fun at the warped interpretation some Americans have of patriotic duty and the protection of public morality.

In Confessions Clooney plays Jim Byrd, a mysterious CIA agent who convinces the producer of the ABC's The Dating Game to become an assassin for the agency. 'What we do is very serious,' Byrd tells Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell). 'It's essential in quelling the rise of communism and allowing democracy to get its rightful foothold on the globe.' We then cut to Chuck observing a training instructor as he attaches electrodes to a mannequin's genitals in a demonstration of how to interrogate communists. Later, we see an officer from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threaten the game show's contestants:

It's an offence to make lascivious remarks on network television. The penalty for this disgusting, un-American behaviour is one year in prison ... and it's a long drive to that prison baby! Just you and me--no witnesses!

In Good Night and Good Luck Clooney continues the comical undertones: in a subplot centred on CBS's ludicrous policy forbidding inter-office romances, we watch two enamored reporters forced to shield their marriage from the company; in an interview with flamboyant entertainer Liberace, Murrow asks the then-closet homosexual if he's 'given much thought to marriage and settling down'; and in a scene with two US Air Force colonels Friendly is pressured not to run the story on Radulovich. The next day Murrow asks him about the meeting:

Murrow: What did the general tell you yesterday?

Friendly: It was a colonel--two of them.

Murrow: That makes a general.

The performances in Good Night and Good Luck are faultless, with the interplay between David Strathairn and Clooney incandescent. The supporting cast is also first rate, and in a cinematic masterstroke Clooney incorporates actual footage of McCarthy rather than using a professional actor in the role. Says co-writer and producer Grant Heslov:

We realized that whomever we got to play McCarthy, no matter how good they were, nobody was going to believe it. They were going to think that the guy was over-acting, so we decided to use the real footage. In regard to Murrow's speeches, here was all this great writing so why not use it? We just felt very strongly that his speeches were so beautiful. (4)

When compared to other journalism films inspired by historical events, Good Night and Good Luck lacks the thrill and suspense of Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976) and the gut-wrenching drama and passion of Michael Mann's The Insider (1999). Instead, it echoes the approach of Billy Ray's Shattered Glass (2003), structured with clinical docu-drama precision and bookended with the protagonist addressing his peers. Explains Clooney:

This is specifically about a television event, and I wanted only the moments that played out on television. We stayed away from most of the exploitative facts, and we just tried to stick with basics. (5)

Unfortunately Good Night and Good Luck is too 'basic'. The film desperately needs more depth and insight into the characters and a splash of life injected into the narrative; its dryness means that it lacks human emotion.

To its credit though (and perhaps I'm biased here), what Clooney's take on the genre does accomplish is that it recasts the newsman as hero, reinventing that 'cinematic staple in past decades [which depicted] the journalist as idealist--gruff and hard-bitten yet unwilling to yield to cynicism, intolerant of bullies and crooks and always ready to fight for the right.' (6) Journalists in Good Night and Good Luck are formed in the image of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. And although not entirely 'fair and balanced', it's certainly a refreshing change from the villainous reporters Hollywood has presented us with in recent years--the psychopath in To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995) who murders to advance her career, the vulture in Mad City (Costa-Gavras, 1997) who endangers the lives of children, and the apathetic journalist in 15 Minutes (John Herzfeld, 2001) who airs footage of serial killers committing their crimes.

There's no denying the political message Good Night and Good Luck conveys. Says Clooney:

This incident and time has been a passion of mine because it is one of the few times you could point to where broadcast journalism actually changed the world and people's minds. McCarthy was untouchable until Murrow stepped up. It was one of those great moments where you really had to be brave ... There's an opportunity that one in a hundred young kids actually might learn who Murrow is and have some discussion and have some understanding of what and how dangerous a democracy can be if fear is used as a weapon. (7)

In an era of patriot acts and sedition laws, in a time when a citizen's silence is mistaken as loyalty to his country, I'm thankful for men like Edward R. Murrow and the people who've documented his story. Edmund Burke famously noted: 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.' Good Night and Good Luck reminds us of what's possible when they do something.

Endnotes

(1) Joseph Raymond McCarthy, speech, Wheeling West Virginia, 9 February 1950.

(2) Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men, Harvest, USA, 1946.

(3) See it Now broadcast, 9 March 1954.

(4) From Warner Independent Pictures, Good Night, and Good Luck press kit.

(5) ibid.

(6) Christopher Hanson, 'Where have all the heroes gone?', Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1996.

(7) Good Night, and Good Luck press kit, op. cit.

Phillip Cenere is a journalist and film critic. He has a Bachelor of Media from Macquarie University and a Master of Arts in Journalism from UTS.
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Title Annotation:THINK AGAIN: CRITICAL RESPONSES
Author:Cenere, Phillip
Publication:Metro Magazine
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Words:2065
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