GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. jjj

2005, R, 93 mins.

Edward R. Murrow: David Strathairn / Fred Friendly: George Clooney / William Paley: Frank Langella / Don Hollenbeck: Ray Wise / Joe Wershba: Robert Downey Jr. / Shirley Wershba: Patricia Clarkson / Sig Mickelson: Jeff Daniels

Directed by George Clooney /  Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov

"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.”

- Edward R. Murrow on Television

As an investigative journalist, no one was more of a prevalent and long-lasting pioneer than Edward R, Murrow.  He was an absolutely seminal force in the creation and development of electronic newsgathering as both a craft and a profession.   His career began earnestly with CBS in 1935 and continued to span the relative infancy of news over the radio waves.  His efforts would further progress into the ascendancy of television in the early 1950’s.  News broadcasts were – in essence – irrevocably changed in his wake.

Through the 50’s with the rise and dominance of TV, Murrow and his programs became the more popular form of broadcasting news to the country.  He quickly rose up the ranks as a journalist in a then untapped and young mass medium.  His reputation soon became the stuff of legend; he was considered a man of integrity, courage, social responsibility, and journalistic excellence.  Murrow became such an emblematic presence on TV that his programs soon became a standard by which all current and future shows would aspire to achieve. 

With his characteristic full, expressive, and eloquent voice matched only by his wit, frankness, and intelligence, Murrow was an evocative figurehead in news when there was none to be had.  He was a journalist that essentially embodied mythic virtues that others would only attain after death; he became a staunch “tell-it-like-it-is” reporter of unparalleled reproach (something his listeners and viewers respected).  The ideals that he expressed on the airwaves – like the necessity of democracy, free speech, citizen participation, the pursuit of truth, and the sanctification of individual liberties and rights in American society – further embellished him as an eminent symbol of the upper echelon of broadcast distinction. 

Murrow's first incursion into television was as the on-camera host of the news and public affairs program, See It Now (1951-1958). This was a continuation of his very popular radio series Hear It Now, which he produced alongside with his friend, Fred W. Friendly.  Many of the individual shows are now considered some of television's finest moments; they were mammoth breakthroughs for the medium.   His most indelible and revered episode was in March 9, 1954 and showcased his very celebrated rebuttal to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

Having seen the original broadcast as an undergraduate in US History class, I can comfortably state that Murrow’s linguistic attacks on McCarthy were startling in their audacity and bravery.  At a time when the nation was at an all-time peak of paranoia over the “Red Scare” and the apparent enveloping onslaught of Communism in everyday American life, for Murrow to publicly challenge a figure that had grown to become a politician that systematically destroyed lives so effortlessly is remarkable.  His individual musings revealed his disdain for McCarthy’s “witch-hunt” and his escalating lack of respect for rights and liberties at home.  “We cannot defend freedom abroad," he stated, “by deserting it at home.”  “His primary achievement,” he would further elaborate, “has been confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism.”  Clearly, as a journalist and a man, Murrow was a persona of incredible bravado.

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (a title taken from Murrow’s own signature sign off line) tells this story of how Murrow, his producers, and the company he worked for (CBS) all took incredible risks to battle the Wisconsin Senator.  The film itself has bookend scenes that show Murrow’s now infamous speech at his own 1958 “Salute to Edward R. Murrow” (more on that later).  However, the overwhelming majority of the narrative details the time between 1953 to 1954 where Murrow devoted a number of episodes of his TV show to discredit McCarthy's persecution of men believed by the Senator to be un-American.  After he successfully defended his own reputation (to which McCarthy unfairly and unjustly tried to tear apart) and discredited McCarthy’s, the US Senate elected to investigate McCarthy, which essentially ended his own terrorizing of the largely innocent people of the country.  One broadcast alone changed public policy; television has rarely been so powerful of a force.

In a way, it’s of no surprise that the film was directed by George Clooney.  His first film, a remarkably assured novice work and one of the best films of 2002 – CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND – focused on the more decidedly colourful TV career of Chuck Barris.  Clooney’s sheer fascination with the history of TV has continued into GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.  His father alone was a distinguished broadcaster and Clooney spent many days, as a child, in early broadcast studios.  His own personal experiences manifest heavily into the more aesthetic trappings of the film and, as a result, give the proceedings an amazing verisimilitude.  Clooney knows what these old studios were like – they were tight, cramped (producers alone would be mere feet from Murrow and would tap him on the leg to give him his cues), and had cigarette smoke billowing everywhere.  They were places brimming with a aura of excitement and intensity.  These reporters, after all, were diving head-first into a medium that was fresh and new and had not been thoroughly explored before.

With the masterful eye of cinematographer Robert Elswit, Clooney creates such a confident and masterful recreation of the pressurized atmosphere of the 1950’s newsroom.  In a bold and ingenious move, they shot the film in black and white (actually, it was shot in color on a grey scale set and was then later digitally reverted to B&W in post) and did not use an instrumental score.  There is music in the film in small vignettes that serve as scene transitions of sorts.  The songs, sung live in the TV studios, further underline the film’s sense of mood and tone.  GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK fosters an undeniable “out-of-body” sensation; it’s as if we’ve been instantly teleported to Murrow’s broadcast epicenter and sit as neutral observers behind the camera to witness his work.

Clooney has triple-bill in the film.  Not only did he direct, by also co-wrote and starred in the film as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly.  His role is secondary and largely takes a backseat to the role of Murrow, played in a brilliant performance by the underrated David Strathairn.  He does such a dead-on impersonation of Murrow that effectively and effortlessly appropriates his mannerisms.  It’s a performance that is such a textbook exercise in cool veracity and fiery determination.  Murrow, in real life, never needed to be vocally loud or crude in manner to get his points across.  Words and his acute choice of words were his weapons and Strathairn infuses in his role vigor and empowerment that defined Murrow’s reputation.  It’s one of 2005’s most quietly passionate performances.  He’s eerily convincing throughout the film.

The film’s third major character is McCarthy himself.  In another inventive move, Clooney and company decided that the best way to give the audience a glimpse into the madness and bigotry of the man was not to cast an actor in the role.  Instead, they use real archival newsreel footage, which –after seeing them – proves to be more incredibly effective than any actor could have been.  The footage alone paints him as a scary and ultimately pathetic figure.  He was frightening in how forceful and single-minded he was in grinding his interview subjects into the ground with his heinous accusations.  He was equally dismal and pitiful during his latter hearings, especially the Army-McCarthy hearings, which proved to be his downfall.  In this footage Army Counsel Joseph Welch – in a fit of frustration – lambasted McCarthy and asked him, “Have you no decency, sir?”  To see McCarthy continue to ramble incoherently after this simple question is to see him at the height of mental illness.  He was a truly sick man by this point.  I think he knew the end was near. 

Murrow’s ultimate defense of himself and his attacks back at McCarthy are vividly recreated in the film.  Strathairn paints the legendary broadcaster as both a visionary and a simple man with guts that stood up for what he and everyone else in America believed in.  He gave a voice to Americans that were too afraid to say what they thought of McCarthy; by the time he was done, popular favour was so intensely in his favor that it was the beginning of the end for the Senator.  Murrow also did this at the risk of losing sponsorship from advertisers, not to mention that he was causing his boss enormous amounts of stress and grief.  Frank Lengella thanklessly plays CBS boss William Paley as a rare head honcho that deeply respected and admired the talents of Murrow and gave him free reign, but he was also a stern pragmatist.  He still manages to question and challenge Murrow on his beliefs when no one else seemed to.

Murrow’s overt courage not only sees fruition in the film during the See It Now telecasts, but also in his 1958 speech at a ceremony in his honor.  During this event he lashed out at the medium that gave him his livelihood and foresaw (with stunning clarity) the oncoming intellectual bankruptcy of television.  He excoriated the broadcasting industry for generating programs that were "being used to detract, delude, amuse and insulate us."  His fearlessness during this speech, in hindsight, is remarkable.  He believed and stated that if television – in the future – would be used for simple-minded entertainment and not education and enlightenment, then the invention alone would be reduced to “wires and lights in a box.”  If he were alive today to see the airwaves being diluted and drowned by an endless string of moronic reality-shows and witless sitcoms, he would no doubt feel vindicated by his forecasts.

Without a doubt, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is another triumph for Clooney the director.  It seems that ever since he made the abortively awful BATMAN AND ROBIN back in 1997 that most of his follow-up efforts have been passion-filled projects.  This film is no exception whatsoever, and he and his collaborators do a virtuoso and impeccable job of recreating the overall emotional confusion and suspicious milieu of one of the darker periods of American history.  As a historical film, it’s a strongly effective piece of time capsule cinema.

Yet, for a film that tries to detail a figure and event that changed the shape of TV journalism forever, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is kind of surprisingly sparse and feels incomplete in places.  At only 93 minutes the film is unfortunately short for the sheer importance of its subject matter.  It does not try to be a thorough and dense biopic of Murrow’s life; it’s more about the prevailing mood of the time and how Murrow fought McCarthyism during a period of political and journalistic complacency.  Yet, the film is genuinely lacking in places.  It feels unfinished and unresolved in key moments and comes across as one of those rough cuts that needed more bridging scenes and moments of satisfying closure.  Some roles, like those of Shirley and Joe Wershba (Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr.), feel largely undeveloped and sort of unnecessary to the overall narrative and thematic thrust of the film.  The two work for CBS and are married during a time when marriage with other employees was strictly forbidden.  Their story has weight and credence, but perhaps in another movie.  GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK deals sparingly with it and then kind of discards it.

The film is not a pedestrian, dime-a-dozen historical work with laborious title cards at the film’s introduction and conclusion to tie up loose ends.  GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is more mature and thoughtful than that.  By the time I left the theatre I felt that I understood Murrow as the renowned broadcast figure that threw stones at Goliath and got away with it.  Yet, I was also left with feelings that I wanted to learn even more about the man.  At the end, the film comes across as more of a historical footnote and not the grand and complete exploration of Murrow’s life and legacy that I was yearning for and expecting.

Nitpicking aside, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is yet another modest triumph for George Clooney.  Despite its faults, the film is  still a memorable, intoxicating, and thoroughly involving work that simultaneously transports viewers to a key moment in the history of broadcast TV journalism while also finding time to comment of the future of the medium.  If anything, Clooney is able to inspire and educate modern audiences with his tale of the struggles of CBS and Murrow against McCarthyism as a near metaphorical glimpse and mirror into our current socio-political mindsets.  At a time when our own civil liberties have been altered with a post-911 ideology and intensity for the sake of “National Security,” Clooney’s film jarringly feels topical and relevant even to today’s viewers.  If anything, this film is a powerfully patriotic call to arms to all those that yearn for TV to return to an obligation of thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating programming that challenges us.  Instead, we stare at the screens today with mind-numbing focus and gratification on a daily basis for the next episode of “American Idol” or “Survivor.”  

Murrow would indeed be ashamed.

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