Monday, October 24, 2005

Fearless reporting: Do not go gentle into that "Good Night"


directed by George Clooney
starring David Strathairn, George Clooney, Frank Langella, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Tate Donovan, others

Get it straight: “Good Night, and Good Luck” is *not* a movie about McCarthyism.

True, it recounts the story of CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), who dared to take on the junior senator from Wisconsin and expose the grotesquerie of his interrogation tactics. But the fact remains that “Good Night” is primarily a film about journalism (and, somewhat more elliptically, about television), and only secondarily a film about McCarthy’s implosion.

Perhaps that’s why the movie feels less like a protest than an elegy—an elegy for a distant, carefully burnished ideal of courageous reporting, arriving at a time when the integrity of both broadcast and newspaper journalism has never been under heavier fire. It’s also why many of the criticisms leveled against George Clooney’s direction and writing (he co-wrote the script with Grant Heslov)—that he stacks the deck against McCarthy, that he exaggerates Murrow’s heroism and importance to McCarthy’s fall, and that he deliberately ignores the genuine threat Communism posed during the 1950s—seem curiously misdirected. Murrow is idealized, certainly, and McCarthy, to put it mildly, comes off as a repugnant bully—though it’s hard to fault the latter portrayal too much, considering the senator stars as himself via archival footage of the Senate hearings and his confrontation with Murrow. The real question, however, is not whether the movie is fair to McCarthy or his cause, but whether it is fair to the media, then or now. Opinions may differ on this; all *I* can say is I walked out of the film feeling chastened and a little sorrowful, on behalf of both the news corps and the television industry generally.

That’s not to say that Clooney’s movie is preachy or overbearing: nothing could be further from the truth. “Good Night” is a smart, coolly measured piece of work, with a spare yet intimate style that draws attention to the words, facial expressions, and body language of the characters as the vehicles for the much larger, universe-shifting events that keep them buzzing over the course of 1953. The camera rarely leaves the CBS studio, except for glimpses of a nearby bar and the home of two network employees (Robert Downey, Jr., and Patricia Clarkson) who happen to be clandestinely married to each other. Yet a tinge of period nostalgia pervades every black-and-white frame of the film, from the brooding, elegantly angular profile of Murrow himself, exhaling a luxurious plume of cigarette smoke, to the jauntily tilted hat of a female jazz singer.

Clooney builds the drama at a deliberate, but not sluggish, pace, and maintains a sometimes maddeningly discreet distance from its central figure. Murrow, played with Strathairn’s characteristic intelligence and restraint, remains something of an enigma—a man who seems to channel all of his passions into the quiet fire of his reporting. If, as I’m assuming, his public lines were taken verbatim from his broadcasts and a famous keynote address delivered some years after the McCarthy showdown, then the man clearly had a way with words that remains unmatched by today’s most eminent journalists. But only the merest flicker of anger breaks through his slightly weary gravitas: all his indignation, his outrage, and his sorrow remain contained within the beautiful structures and rhythms of his speech. If this treatment tends to render him a shade too iconic, the only proper defense is that the film is less about Murrow the man than the principles for which he stood. In interviews, Clooney has made it clear that the movie is in part a tribute to his own father, a former news anchor, as well as to Murrow, so it’s hardly surprising that Murrow emerges as more of a symbol of integrity than a fully dimensional character.

The rest of the cast shows some degrees more teeming humanity, if only within the rarefied context of the newsroom and its corporate offices. Clooney himself appears as a key supporting character, subduing his natural charm (but not his wit) to play Murrow’s loyal producer, Fred Friendly, while Frank Langella, as head honcho Bill Paley, does a fabulous job conveying the mixture of paternal understanding and frigid corporate logic that would go only so far (read: not very) in backing Murrow’s crusade. The film also introduces a more personalized note of pathos in the form of Don Hollenback (Ray Wise), a fellow CBS anchor who was routinely and viciously flayed as a pinko by the 1950s counterpart to Bill O’Reilly—if you don’t see where *his* story arc is going, then you’re not paying attention. It’s a quiet, surprisingly unhistrionic nod to the real damage wreaked by the “Red” scare, regardless of whether or not that scare was well founded.

In the end, the film focuses not on that highly touchy subject (which is best captured in the Senate hearings footage, anyway), or even on the age-old truth that, as Murrow put it, “dissent is not the same as disloyalty,” but rather on the duty of the media to do, well, what Murrow did. Not just speak truth to power, but to inform and educate the citizenry on those events which affect their very lives, their well-being, and their rights. In that 1958 keynote address, which flanks the beginning and end of the movie, Murrow took several sharp shots against television’s enslavement to advertising and the corporate bottom dollar—shots that seem even more appropriate today. But he also focused on the power of television to shape people’s minds and understanding:

“To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

What would Murrow make of television today, I wonder? I shudder to think.



Post a Comment

<< Home