Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Directed By: George Clooney
Written By: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, and Frank Langella
Synopsis: CBS reporter Edward Murrow takes it to red-scare leader Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hijinks do not ensue. Instead, everyone gets so depressed and mopey that they have to be shown in black-and-white.

To say that Clooney's directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, lacked subtlety is... a bit... understated. Quite a bit of an understated, actually. One reviewer referred to it as "a movie dressed up in a camouflage shirt and pink polka-dotted pants in the middle of a surprise summer snowstorm." Colorful imagery, that. I don't think I could have come up with that myself.

I bring this up because Clooney's second picture is so much the antithesis to this. Good Night, and Good Luck bristles with tension, but the tone and style of the picture is, well, understated. Quite a bit understated, actually.

Inspired by the simplicity of Jean-Luc Godard's films (most notably, Breathless - Clooney wanted to use the same lenses so badly that when they didn't fit, he tried to scotch tape them to the camera), Clooney's film is sparse, subdued. He couldn't be any more deliberate. For almost every shot in the film, he let his actors pick out where they wanted to be, then moved the camera around to film them. It's a smart choice - in a story of such slow, careful change, the audience constantly feels like a fly on the wall, observing action that flows organically around the camera. In an utter rarity in recent filmmaking, every piece of the film's style - from its European cinematography to its silky 1950's black-and-white styling to its modern sensibilities - enhances the story.

Oh, right, the story. I forgot. Good Night is the true-to-life tale of how famed journalist Edward R. Murrow (it's okay, I hadn't heard of him either) turned the tables on red-scare ringleader Senator Joe McCarthy through a series of accusatory pieces on the mildly-groundbreaking CBS news show See It Now.

I wasn't particularly familiar with the story before seeing the film (alright, fine, I didn't know a damn thing about it), but Clooney's got newsman in his blood and his script - co-written with Grant Heslov, another actor-cum-writer - lays the facts out with a surprising journalistic clarity. In fact, Clooney's might even be too careful in covering all his bases: afraid that any deviation would let the press cut his film to ribbons, Clooney triple-checks his facts, leaning on actual recorded dialogue or stock footage whenever possible.* Most surprisingly, rather than having someone play McCarthy, he only uses what footage of the senator is available. It's simultaneously refreshing and a cheap filmmaking crutch for the story to lean on.

Still, I'm all for it. Clooney dearly wants his film to change a viewer's perspective, and I find Good Night's earnestness deeply endearing. Each actor's performance is entrancingly personal and natural - particularly Strathairn, who gives Murrow a subtle humanity covered over by a steely public persona. It's one of the many little-noted performances this year (along with Damian Lewis in Keane) that probably won't scare up any Best Actor buzz this spring, but really should.

The problem with Good Night, though, is that the message of the film is that once upon a time, newsmen gave a damn - but those days are gone now. The film bookends with clips of Strathairn performing Murrow's landmark keynote address at the Radio and Television News Directors Convention (Not to toot my intellectual horn, but I had actually heard about this speech. Admittedly, I'd heard about it in the promotional articles for Good Night, and Good Luck) about how news reporting was being replaced by mere entertainment, and the time has come for television journalists to stand up and use the medium for good. "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire," Murrow notes. "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."

I agree. I do. I truly believe that if television reporting does nothing more than keep the viewer occupied for a moment, if it inspires nothing more than water-cooler talk, then it's wasted breath. And Lord knows I'm tired of: "Big news today in the Middle East - we'll keep you updated on the events as they unfold. But first - Kelly Ripa!"

But I'm not convinced that modern-day journalists have truly lost their belief in the power of the press. Consider the general reaction to Katrina: in the wake of tragedy, the press sprang into action faster than essentially every government office, and spent the next two weeks holding the government's feet to the fire on their lackadasical response. Admittedly, they didn't show a whole lot of disgression in understanding exactly whose feet should be held to which fire ("Hey, Benedict XVI! How could you just stand by and let the U.S. government develop no emergency flooding strategy?"), but no one's arguing that they didn't feel strongly about the issue. As a field reporter for the Daily Show gently lampooned: "I've been in New Orleans for six hours now and I still haven't gotten to publicly berate an official." I think Clooney can rest easy in that regard.

Furthermore, Clooney falls prey to one of the classic blunders (the most famous of which being never, ever give Michael Bay a camera): in striving to drive home a blistering lesson, he becomes the very evil he's fighting. Yes, entertainment shouldn't trump true news reporting in the hearts of television producers - but if that's the case, shouldn't Good Night hold the same tone? Instead, Clooney seems perfectly willing to deviate from his story in order to work in some comic relief: Murrow's interview with Liberace, a highlight of the film, helps loosen up a story becoming too wound up in its own careful pacing and weighty pauses; in the same way, modern newscasting breaks up the fiery crashes and confusing foreign policy with speculation on whether Paris has stolen Mary-Kate's boy toy. Watching Murrow try to hold on to his deadpan interview style across from the most flamboyant of all subjects humanizes his character, just as entertainment news helps humanize a medium that flourishes on destruction and pain.

I'm not saying that Clooney is wrong. I just feel that if you're so willing to film something in black-and-white, you better be ready to deal with the fact that it might be a gray area.

Rating: Lessee here - one star for Strathairn's performance and one for everyone else's, one star for making something as anachronistic as black-and-white movie, one star for making history interesting without adding any homosexuality (in case Oliver Stone ever reads this), minus one star for writing a movie that occasionally borders on propaganda but plus half a star for actually having the balls to make it. Comes out to three and half stars out of five.

There's a good deal of argument in regards to how much Clooney really did stick to the facts. I have an argument here that disseminates (a blogger's favorite word, probably used incorrectly here) an entirely different story about the legend of Edward R. Murrow. It's just as slanted towards conservative thinking as Clooney's is in the opposite direction, but if you watch the film and read the article, you'll find they agree on a number of things:
1. Communism is at least a little bad.
2. McCarthy is not cool. Neither is McCarthyism. Smoking, however, might be cool. Keep that in mind, kids.
3. It's bad to take away people's constitutional rights, even if you really, really want to.

Of course, if you already agree on these things, you don't have to watch the movie or read the article, and you've saved yourself from Saturday night of political debate that can now safely spent snacking. Good job.


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