Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Working in a Climate of Fear: Good Night and Good Luck.

Where does George Clooney find the time? I tend to think of him as the easy-grinning charmer of such films as Intolerable Cruelty or Ocean’s Twelve, but he has recently proven himself a provocative political analyst, green-lighting projects that take on issues that the regular press would just as soon gloss over. He was executive producer and star of Syriana, one of the first movies to fully acknowledge the phenomenon of peak oil and its relation to our policies in the Middle East. Now, by directing, writing, and starring in the Best Picture Oscar-nominated Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney has used a looking-glass mirror of the McCarthy paranoia of the early 1950s to force moviegoers to consider the spinelessness of the press and the erosion of civil liberties today. While other films rely on sex and violence to involve the viewer, Good Night’s sense of decorum, quiet, and dignity works like a tonic. This film keeps all of its battles strictly verbal, and the restrained black and white cinematography keeps the emphasis on ideas.

The story concerns Edward R. Murrow, the influential radio and television journalist who participated in the first on-the-scene radio broadcasts of World War II. In 1953, Murrows had a show called See It Now, a kind of forerunner to 60 Minutes, when he wasn’t obliged to interview fluff celebrities like Andy Rooney for another talk show. As played by David Strathairn, Murrow comes across as a knight of grim integrity, perpetually chain-smoking cigarettes and composing witheringly effective speeches in his head. Amidst all of paranoia of the red-baiting, Murrow begins his battles by profiling a Lieutenant in the US Air Force who had been discharged for being a security risk without a fair trial. While it was a relatively small matter compared to the McCarthy hearings, it still reflected the witch-hunting tactics of the time, and CBS immediately gets pressured by the US Military to drop the story. Also, the sponsor for the show withdraws, leaving Murrow and Fred Friendly, his producer played by Clooney, to come up with the advertising dollars on their own. Thanks to this opening shot, McCarthy himself soon enough targets Murrow as a communist, so the story escalates into a media war between the influential junior Senator from Wisconsin and the lone ranger journalist.

While other films might have loosened up a bit, explored the home lives of the characters some, included a chase scene, thrown in an explosion or two, Clooney keeps the camera relentlessly inside the CBS studios. As a dramatization in a key moment in journalistic integrity, the film is impeccable, but it is also carries the sterility of hero-worship. Even though Murrow makes self-deprecating jokes at times, he remains grimly unchanging throughout. It’s hard to feel the pressure he got from taking on McCarthy (who shows up as himself from footage from the period), in part because we don’t see much public response to his shows.

While there are periods of soul music and relaxation in a neighborhood bar as the television press waits for the newspaper editorials the following morning, the actors are not given much to do. Robert Downey Jr. seems particularly wasted as Joe Wershba, who also felt CBS corporate pressure for secretly being married to a coworker. He has the occasional moment of doubt as one of his colleagues commits suicide in the midst of the increased red-baiting in the studio, but like everyone else, Downey is restrained by Clooney’s respectful attention to Murrow. The film is dignified and important to the extreme, but it also never gets much of a chance to breathe. While we don’t even know of a comparable figure in modern day television journalism, still, sometimes virtuousness on screen can be oppressive. While he shows much promise, Clooney still has yet to learn how to include the spark of his irreverent acting in his writing and his directorial style.

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