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Good Night, and Good Luck. Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Image George Clooney was reportedly paid $3 for writing, starring in, and directing “Good Night, and Good Luck.” With the profit percentage he has in the film, though, Clooney is probably going to do just fine for all his hard work and effort. However, his stand on bringing the story to the screen is indicative of the story behind the film. More than that, it eerily echoes some of the politicking concerns that have gone on through this country again since the September 11 terrorist attack.

In the 1950s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was one of the first Irish Catholics to succeed in politics as a Republican. In ten years of service, he became known for his witch hunts and blank check accusation of citizens, public figures, and government and military employees of being Communists. During the heyday of the Cold War (the extreme hostility between Russia and the United States following World War II), McCarthy was given free reign for years.

McCarthy’s accusations effectively ended the lives and/or careers of many. At the same time, a congressional committee subpoenaed actors, writers and directors who were suspected of leaning too far left. Many were branded as Communists—whether they were or not. Some acting careers ended altogether; the careers of others, including Charlie Chaplin and Larry Parks, were put on hold for years. The Hollywood Ten (a group of writers) were among those who were blacklisted and suddenly found themselves ostracized from the movies.

The period most notoriously lasted from 1950 to 1956, and the effects are still talked about in awe today. How so much power could be given to one man—or a small group—is still hard to imagine. But through the magic medium of television, at a time when someone with something earth-shaking, or potentially earth-shaking, had something to say, McCarthy wielded a huge amount of political and public sway. He often leveled accusations without having a shred of proof, and was forced to recant many of these accusations in later days. In interviews, George Clooney has stated that he’d always been drawn to Edward R. Murrow’s decision to take the fight to Senator McCarthy. What most people don’t know is that Clooney comes by the interest naturally. In college, he majored in journalism, and Edward R. Murrow’s career and onscreen, in-the-news fight against McCarthy had to be prime study material. In fact, while filming “Syriana”, Clooney was injured in a fall and received subsequent medical treatment that ended up with him being left without insurance for a while. At the time, he was leaking spinal fluid from his nose and suffered permanent damage. In order to make “Good Night, and Good Luck”, he had to put his house up for collateral. That was the same kind of dedication and commitment Murrow brought to his campaign against McCarthy over the CBS cautions against airing the material..

Video Presentation: The HD DVD in 1080i was filmed in gray tone on color stock, then color-corrected to black-and-white. As a result, the film is sharp and crisp, looking incredibly clear. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is that most people in it seemed to be smokers. At the time, smoking was a mark of success, and a hobby a lot of people had. The smoke wafts through the scenes often, spinning and twirling, adding an extra dimension to the look of the finished product.

Audio Presentation: “Good Night, and Good Luck.” has no musical score, though there are songs scattered throughout. The singer who appears was shot on the stage with the other actors. The effect is charming and very evocative of the times the film represents. Even in the commentary sections by Clooney and Heslov, the same quiet tones seem to permeate the audio portions, making it easy to imagine the two men sitting in a sound stage putting the piece together.

George Clooney is a box office darling. Springing from television, especially “ER”, Clooney has gone on to build a very successful career in movies. However, he’s also been known to step over the box office hits that come his way to work on movies that he sees potential in or simply falls in love with, such as “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”. Starring as Fred Friendly in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”, Clooney brings an honest delivery of Murrow’s right-hand man, never once upstaging Strathairn’s portrayal of the crusty newsman.

David Strathairn’s no-nonsense job as Edward R. Murrow really shines in this film. He has all the late newsman’s behaviors and mannerisms down to a T, including the cocked head looking at the camera while burning a cigarette.

Murrow, the real Murrow, came to the attention of the American radio listening public during World War Il. Stationed in London, he broadcast the news of the war effort with calm demeanor and created a stock phrase, “This…is London”, with the emphasis on the first word. His onscreen battle with Senator McCarthy was the stuff from which legends are made. Murrow also championed television as a vehicle for news and information rather than just an entertainment system.

Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Joseph Wershba is good and a welcome bit during the heaviness of the film. The subplot involving him and his (secret) wife—secret because at the time CBS had a policy that no employees could be married—is at once distracting, an echo of the main plotline, and a softening of the overall story. Downey does a nice job of being a man in love who’s risking a lot by getting involved with Murrow’s tilting at an almighty powerful windmill.

Patricia Clarkson plays Shirley Wershba and comes across as the 1950s girl Friday. Her scenes with Downey are filled with a subdued sexuality and true love, pulling viewers intimately into their story and the secret they’re protecting.

Another sympathetic and telling role during the fight between McCarthy and Murrow was the plight of Don Hollenbeck, the night anchor on CBS. Hollenbeck had worked for PM (Picture Magazine) which was accused of leftist leanings because the magazine often championed the “little guy” and tried to ensure a fair treatment. Badgered in the press, deserted by his wife, Hollenbeck ended up taking his own life. Actor Ray Wise brings the reporter’s frailty and vulnerability to the screen in the few scenes he’s scattered throughout the film.

The film opens up on a dinner gathered to honor Edward R. Murrow for his contributions to the radio and television news industry. In his trademark solemn manner, Murrow at once delivers a quiet message of thanks wrapped in a warning that television was in danger of simply becoming a source of entertainment rather than one of information.

From there the movie steps back in time to the story of Milo Radulovic, an Air Force officer who was a first-generation Serbian born in America. McCarthy’s people quickly branded Radulovic a Communist sympathizer and effectively got his commission stripped from him by the Air Force.

Murrow, who’d been itching to find something to take into a battle against McCarthy, seized the story and started getting things organized to go into battle. At the time, no one wanted to deal with McCarthy because he was a favorite in Washington, and because taking him on also meant get dubbed a Communist or Communist supporter, either of which would end careers or chase friends away. A lot of times the friends left not because people believed those branded Communists truly were, but because they didn’t want to come under suspicion themselves.

In the person of CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella), the network tried to block the program, but Murrow stood his ground against Paley. In the end, Murrow and Friendly had to pay for $3000 worth of ads to get the segment aired..

The movie progresses smoothly. A lot of the dialogue was listed directly from newscasts and some of the behind-the-scenes events that unfolded. The story is streamlined, never going into Murrow’s personal life at home or anywhere truly outside the office. After the broadcast, the team all gathered in a local bar to wait to see what the newspapers had to say about Murrow’s jab at McCarthy. Although most viewers won’t be in doubt about the outcome, the tension in that smoke-filled bar is still palpable.

From there, the story picks up the announcement that Milo Radulovic’s file is reviewed and he’s reinstated into the Air Force. When Annie Lee Moss gets fired from a Pentagon-based communications job, Murrow climbed up into the saddle once again, this time with even more telling and permanent results.

Although “Good Night, and Good Luck.” tends to portray the events as a one-man war against McCarthy, the truth was the senator and his witch-hunting lackeys were already on their way out the door. Murrow certainly weighed in heavily and brought a lot more attention to bear on the problem.

Although the special features on the HD DVD are limited (as well as the DVD counterpart on the flip side), the commentary with Clooney and Heslov shows the interest and passion both men shared for Murrow’s story. Their quiet voices resonate as they give both personal memories of getting the story together as well as the film itself. It’s a great piece to listen to while watching the film a second time.

The tension Clooney and Heslov created in the script is really brought to fruition in the sharp black-and-white imagery Clooney directed. The package is simple, effective, and neat. It’s also probably something that will be shown in journalism classes for years to come, alongside “All The President’s Men.” Most people won’t notice, but nearly all of the sets that were used for the film were enhanced through computer graphics that were laid in after the film was finished. The final product looks very much like it was shot on an early 1950s television live broadcast set.

Murrow was phased out of the news game shortly after the events related in this film. But he finished standing up with a body of work behind him that will guarantee his place in history. One can only imagine what he might say about the style of journalism that “60 Minutes” displays, or the 24-hour news channels viewers now enjoy.

“Good Night, and Good Luck.” may not be on everybody’s viewing list, but it should be. Not only does the film cover a very important piece of history and civil rights, but it shows the elegance that dedicated writers and directors can bring to a piece without going for daredevil stunts, a current soundtrack, and over-the-top drama in screaming voices. The movie is a compact, tightly fisted punch that results in a knockout blow.

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