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Good Night, and Good Luck: history replays itself.

Good Night, and Good Luck is the first mainstream film to respond to the consequences of 9/11 and the Bush administration's reaction to it. George Clooney, who directed, co-wrote and co-stars in the film, takes an indirect approach to present day concerns, using a 1954 televised confrontation between newscaster Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy to address two major issues: 1) civil liberties; 2) the media, specifically television. The Murrow-McCarthy exchange of words neatly combines both these issues. In the immediate post WW II period, McCarthy used Cold War fears, particularly the threat of Communist infiltration into American society through the government, education and the entertainment industry, to keep the public on edge over national security. Using the House Un-American Activities Committee as his base, he became, as its chairman, the most celebrated and feared government official in America, hunting down individuals who he claimed were Communists or involved in subversive activities. McCarthy's tactics were intimation and the inducing of fear, making often outrageous accusations with little or no regard for the consequences of his claims. In the name of patriotism, McCarthy destroyed lives and mounted a powerful assault on civil liberties. What he did in the early 1950s finds its echo in George W. Bush's post 9/11 on-going war on terror that included from the outset making civil liberties secondary to the government's protection of its citizens. While McCarthy had instilled fear into the media (anyone who challenged his credibility was labelled a Communist or pro-Communism), the Bush administration attempts to use the mainstream media, which has been predominantly willing to support the government whatever it says, to shape public opinion in its favour. And, Bush, like McCarthy, uses fear to keep the American public under his sway.


Good Night, and Good Luck is an inspired piece of socially responsible filmmaking. Taking an incident from what is considered a dark period in recent American history as his subject matter, Clooney addresses a significant aspect of the political climate of contemporary America and does so without needing to belabour his point. But Good Night, and Good Luck isn't merely a film with a clever concept. It is an intelligent and graceful combining of politics, art and entertainment. I want to briefly comment below on the film's aesthetics, its mise-enscene, structure and performances.

Clooney shot Good Night, and Good Luck in black and white. His primary reason for doing so was that he decided to use archival footage of Joseph McCarthy instead of having an actor play the senator. The film includes footage of McCarthy interrogating a witness during a House Un-American Activities Committee session and his appearance on "See It Now" in which he responds to an earlier show in which Murrow challenges his tactics and motives. Clooney, in interviews (1), says that he didn't want an actor playing McCarthy because he felt it was better if the viewer had direct access to the senator's presence and persona. The strategy works very well as McCarthy is, in his own way, a fascinating figure, being in equal measure forceful and nervously hesitant, sincere and sinister, transparent and manipulative. And, in using McCarthy himself, the film provides an accurate record of his ideas and politics.

While the kinescope footage of McCarthy adds to the film's recreation of the 1950s, the film's black and white photography aids in evoking the period in other ways. It references the aesthetic of the documentary film which was, until the 1970s, dominated by black and white photography. Similarly, television programs were broadcast, with rare exceptions, in black and white as colour sets were very expensive at the time. Clooney judiciously reinforces the film's connections to documentary film and television respectively through the staging of scenes and their framing. For instance, the film's opening sequence, which is set on October 25, 1958, the occasion being a testimonial dinner for Edward R. Murrow, is shot and edited in a cinema-verite style; the guests, that include, as the viewer soon discovers, his colleagues, are shown interacting in a seemingly spontaneous manner. As the sequence progresses, the pacing slows down and the "A Salute to Edward R. Murrow' begins with Sig Mickelson/Jeff Daniels, a CBS employee, providing a concise summary of Murrow's connections to CBS and his broadcasting accomplishments. Murrow is introduced backstage, waiting in the wings and about to address his audience, in a striking close-up profile shot. Close-up shots of Murrow reoccur throughout the film. These have a dual function: In addition to privileging his status in the narrative, they mirror his television screen image which was most often seen in close-up.

Good Night, and Good Luck uses the testimonial dinner as a framing device. The event is notable not only as a tribute to him by his peers, but also for the speech he delivered. In it, Murrow warns that television is at the crossroads, still capable of providing informative and intelligent programming but on the brink of becoming merely escapism, a means to distract and isolate the viewer. As he concludes his sentence, a close-up of Murrow fades to black and in its place an inter-title appears, reading 'CBS Studios--New York, October 14, 1953'. Next, Diane Reeves is heard on the sound track singing "TV Is The Thing This Year" and the camera is positioned in an elevator, filled with staff members arriving on the job. There is imposed over the image two short statements: The first says that Americans were 'overwhelmed' by the threat of Communism in the 1940s and 1950s; the second tells us that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed over two hundred Communists had infiltrated the government but that the press was afraid to react, fearing being a target itself. On the completion of the narrative proper, a dissolve is used to return to Murrow's 1958 speech, still in progress. Murrow, now concluding the entire speech, is shown in a close-up and then walks out of the frame, leaving the screen black until the end credits begin to role. This final close-up of Murrow works as a form of punctuation, effectively and eloquently summarizing Clooney's evocative use of the close-up.

The introductory framing sequence uses low-key lighting which is justified by the atmosphere created by the candle-lit dinner environment. The lighting creates high contrast and gives the seemingly candid images a strong definition. (These images, as still photographs, could have appeared in a copy of a then popular 'current events' news magazine such as Life or Look magazine.) While Clooney is here again relating the imagery to the period, Good Night, and Good Luck isn't stylistically mannered, self-consciously attempting to create a feeling of nostalgia for the viewer. The film is fluid in its editing and use of camera movement. This is evident particularly in the scenes depicting the studio work space of Murrow and his colleagues. While the film is shot solely on interior sets and mainly in constricting spaces, its imagery never becomes claustrophobic. And the pacing is finely tuned to the drama of the events unfolding, particularly in the depiction of the broadcasting of "See It Now", both the behind-the-scenes preparation and on-air experience.

Being set in the New York City of the 1950s and given Murrow's air of sophistication, it seems appropriate that jazz music is used throughout the film. Dianne Reeves, whose presence suggests the likes of Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, is heard and/or seen periodically although she has no direct connection to the narrative itself. Instead, her songs serve as commentary (at times ironic), and aid in giving the film continuity as it is essentially a series of set pieces. Additionally, the songs and their interpretations heighten the film's somewhat elegiac mood. To his credit, Clooney doesn't use pop songs of the day on the soundtrack, a practice that, since Martin Scorsese introduced the concept with Who's That Knocking at My Door (1968), has become a cliche. If the film is influenced by Scorsese's work it is his Raging Bull (1980), with which it stylistically shares, in addition to the black and white photography, a present/past framing device, an episodic narrative and the use of inter-titles to identify time changes as the narrative evolves; and, McCarthy, like Jake La Motta, is a driven, attention-getting and paranoid human being.

Reeves' presence is one strategy the film uses to make the viewer think; another example is found in its fast pacing and introduction to numerous characters at the beginning of the October 14, 1953, segment. The viewer needs to pay attention to the characters to find out who they respectively are, their function and what is being said in the dialogue exchanges taking place. Clooney, while using cutting and camera movement to visually engage, is, from the outset, making language equally relevant. The film is, after all, dealing with, in the presences of Murrow and McCarthy, words and ideas.

Whereas Senator Joseph McCarthy appears through the use of kinescope footage, Edward R. Murrow is played by David Strathairn who, in addition to having a physical resemblance to Murrow, captures his professional presence and persona. But Good Night, and Good Luck places its political concerns over the biographical film. In fact, it adheres to what McCarthy says in his opening comments on the "See It Now" program in which he responds to Murrow's criticism; that is, what is at stake in their conflict is not the individual but issues. There is no attempt to 'humanize' Murrow in a conventional sense by providing, for instance, access to his personal life. Yet Strathairn, with his humanity and intelligence, creates an engaging and complex characterization.

By placing emphasis on Murrow's measured and responsible behaviour, the film reinforces his personality differences from McCarthy, who thrives on emotionalism. On the other hand, Good Night, and Good Luck points out that their respective destinies simultaneously converge: Murrow, because of his decision to challenge McCarthy through his "See It Now" program, loses his status at CBS and, in effect, initiates the downfall of his television career; McCarthy, because of his ever aggressive assault on ferreting out Communists in America, oversteps his powers in taking on the Pentagon and, on live television, in the course of a 1954 investigative hearing into his misuse of authority, is stripped of his stature and power. In showing a kinescope of Army counsel Joe Welch reducing an earlier seen bullying McCarthy to a pathetic, simpering figure, the film provides a dramatic moment that is in itself disturbing and complex, on both a political and personal level.

Good Night, and Good Luck keeps a tight focus on the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation. The film's other major characters include Fred Friendly/George Clooney, William Paley/Frank Langella, Joe Wershba/Robert Downey Jr., Shirley Wershba/Patricia Clarkson and Don Hollenbeck/Ray Wise. Of these characters, Joe and Shirley Wershba are the least significant. The characters are the closest the film comes to providing viewer identification figures. In part this occurs because they are given a personal life, including scenes that take place in their home. Both Joe and Shirley work for CBS (he is part of Murrow's staff) and, because the company policy prohibits the hiring of a married couple, they aren't allowed to be open about their marriage on the job. Although the workplace regulation adds to the film's period flavour (another instance in which 'exposure' will lead to loss of job), their situation doesn't seem sufficiently meaningful to warrant the footage it is given. The Wershbas are the most 'ordinary' of the principal characters and least central to the narrative. In contrast, William Paley and Don Hollenbeck contribute directly to the film's dramatic weight. Paley, the head of CBS and Murrow's employer, becomes increasingly uncomfortable about the controversial situation in which the network is being placed because of Murrow's attack on McCarthy. From Paley's perspective, what is at stake is the network's alienation of their advertisers and the function of commercial television. Paley, while having respect for Murrow, both professionally and personally, refuses to be swayed by Murrow's claims that, in taking on McCarthy, he remains within the job description of a news reporter. Ultimately, it is Paley who is responsible for ending Murrow's longstanding relationship with the network. Whereas Paley is and remains a powerful figure, Hollenbeck, a nightly newscaster for CBS (and a colleague of Murrow's) who has been identified publicly as a 'pinko', has become, because of the pressures this has placed upon him, a defenceless and despairing figure. In the film's most intimate moment, Hollenbeck, in the only shot of him in private, is seen in his kitchen turning on the gas burners as he is about to commit suicide. Hollenbeck is the film's most sympathetic character. Because he has been 'outed' as being pro-Communist, he becomes an isolated figure; even Murrow is cautious about being associated with him as he is well-aware that it will be used against him, another way to claim that he has, like Hollenbeck, Communist leanings. With Hollenbeck, the film points to the tragic consequences of the oppressive environment McCarthy and his supporters created in the name of defending democracy.

Fred Friendly, producer of and collaborator on "See It Now", is presented as working in total unison with Murrow whether it is providing support when the latter is about to go on-air, or in dealing with the Pentagon when it attempts to block Murrow's broadcast on the dismissal of Milo Radulovich, an airman who was discharged from the armed forces without a trial on the grounds that his family were Communist sympathizers. Yet Friendly is the film's most unobtrusive character; he most often is seen as being thoughtful, committed and responsible. Clooney, the film's one box-office asset, in casting himself in the role, is effacing his identity as a leading man. Not only does the casting and his performance illustrate Clooney's willingness to serve the project, it also indicates his refusal to provide the film with a 'hero' figure. Clooney's on screen presence isn't used, by association, to give charisma to Strathairn's Murrow, an appealing but somewhat reserved figure. Clearly, the film isn't being offered as a conventional tale of a hero defeating a villain with a happy-ever-after ending. Any such notion is undermined by the presentation of Murrow's defeat in the film's past (what he represents and stands for causes him to lose "See It Now") and present (his warnings about the descent of television programming into mind-numbing entertainment, as we know, were ignored ).

Despite its seriousness of purpose, Good Night, and Good Luck has a sense of humour. Some of it comes from wry dialogue exchanges (about to go on-air with his McCarthy program, Murrow receives a telephone call from Paley; Paley: "There's a Knickerbocker game tonight. I've got front row seats. Are you interested?"; Murrow: "I'm a little busy bringing down the network tonight, Bill"), but the film's funniest moment occurs when Murrow interviews Liberace on his "Person to Person" show. Murrow inquires if he has any plans to marry, to which Liberace responds by telling him about his friend Princess Margaret, saying that she is looking for the right man and that he, too, hopes to be successful in his search. On a darker level, the film includes two commercials featured on "See It Now". The first is for Kent cigarettes which shamelessly flatters the viewer who is told that, in watching the program, he or she is intelligent, has a discerning nature and will therefore smoke the finest cigarette available. (In Good Night, and Good Luck almost everyone is smoking and Murrow was, as seen in the film, a very heavy smoker; he died eventually from lung cancer, giving the ad a grimly sinister meaning that it couldn't have had in the mid-1950s.) The second commercial shown is sponsored by Alcoa. Earlier in the film, it is mentioned that the aluminum company might object to any negative on-air comments about the Pentagon as it has a contact with the government. But the Alcoa ad aired is noble and self-effacing, celebrating the American farmer who, with Alcoa's help (supplying the metal needed to build grain siloes), feeds the country.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a bold and audacious film. To begin, shooting in black and white limited its commercial potential. Grant Heslov, the film's producer and co-writer, and George Clooney took a big risk in making a film centred on Edward R. Murrow, early television and the political climate of the 1950s Cold War years. The film is consistently intelligent and maintains its integrity, refusing to exploit its subject matter or dumb it down to appeal to the contemporary viewer. In addition, it is remarkable in its skill in turning history into a work that is in part essay and in part dramatic storytelling. Clooney, to fully draw attention to the political connections between the environment of 1950s America and the present day, reconstructs the period. (Good Night, and Good Luck could have been made conceivably using solely archival footage. But as a documentary film, it would have retained stronger ties to its historical origins and lessened its contemporary significance.)

From another perspective, the film provides David Strathairn with a role that gives him the opportunity to illustrate his extraordinary talent. Strathairn's performance is a highly original and creative piece of acting that deserves more recognition than it received. Strathairn convincingly enacts a real-life personality and makes Murrow into an iconic-like presence. In addition, Robert Elswit's elegant black and white photography is essential to the film's success. It is both a thing of beauty in itself and provides the film, in the recreation of the look of cinema-verite footage, with a tone and atmosphere ideally suited to its subject matter and era. Good Night, and Good Luck deservedly received each of its six Academy Award nominations (it was nominated in the categories of best picture, director, male lead performance, original screenplay, art direction and cinematography). Considering what he accomplished with the film, it isn't surprising that Clooney seemed a bit dissatisfied Oscar night when receiving his award as Best Supporting Actor for Syriana.

As Good Night, and Good Luck proclaims, the issue of civil liberties, the media and 'news' reporting are today, as they were fifty years ago, of the upmost importance to a democratic society. In using the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation, the film foregrounds a complex issue about the function of reportage and objectivity. It challenges notions of total objectivity, recognizing the importance of the subjective self but also the need for reason and clear thinking. And, it reminds the viewer that in America, when it comes to defending the rights of the individual, there is a difference between, as Murrow says in the film, dissent and disloyalty.


1. J. Hoberman, "Celebrity Journalist", Village Voice, October 5-11, 2005, p.32; Graham Fuller and Ali Jaafa, "Clooney: Confessions of a dangerous mind", Sight & Sound, March, 2006, pp. 14-20.
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Author:Lippe, Richard
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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