Good Night, And Good Luck: American Journalism in Black-and-White

Can a movie be too short for its subject matter?  George Clooney’s “Good Night, And Good Luck” is a borderline case.  Though narrowly focused, the film’s 90-minute-frame is barely sufficient to cover an important political case that tore the nation apart and whose long-running effects are still felt today.

cgr6hoznar5Clooney the director has chosen a noirish style for his black-and white expose that lands the film formal elegance. Though Clooney shows improvement over his first, rather disappointing film, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” he’s still too concerned with visual style. “Good Night” is fascinating to watch, but you can’t help but notice the strong attention to iconography and formal staging, which at times distract from the central polemics.

The main problem of “Good Night,” despite my admiration for tackling a controversial political case, is that it’s almost one-character film, centering on Murrow (impressivley played by David Strathairn), and even Murrow’s characterization is confined to his professinal side.

Moreover, a large gallery of talented actors, such as Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., and Clooney himself, are playing one-dimensional or underdeveloped roles that mostly serve as plot functions or background figures.

The whole movie is a bit stiff and rigid in its determination not to sidestep from its main political case. And yet, the fact “Good Night” movie was made in a landscape not known for political movies, let alone movies that take critical stance, deserves admiration and support. Hence, my mixed feelings about the film’s merits and overall impact.

Taking place in the early years of broadcast journalism, 1953-1954, “Good Night, And Good Luck” chronicles the conflict between TV newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC).

Morrow is depicted as a pro motivated by the desire to report the facts, as harsh as they are, and the urge to enlighten, rather than entertain, the public. He’s surrounded by a dedicated staff, headed by his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), and Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) in the CBS newsroom.

The story centers on Morrow’s defiance of corporate and sponsorship pressures to pursue his investigation of the lies and scare-mongering tactics perpetrated by McCarthy during his Communist witch-hunt. A public feud develops, when the Senator responds with a counter-attack, accusing the popular anchor of being a Communist himself.

Disregarding the prevalent climate of fear, paranoia, and reprisal, CBS news carries on heroically. Their tenacity eventually pays off, when McCarthy is brought before the Senate, where he is made powerless by uncovering his lies and bullying tactics.

Context is important and Clooney is doing his best to convey basic dates and facts in an unobtrusive way. The yarn begins in October 1953, when TV is still in its infancy, and the esteemed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow anchors the popular news documentary show, “See It Now,” and hosts the talk show, “Person to Person.” Alongside his producer Fred Friendly, Murrow oversees a show that reports on the news items of the day. It’s made clear that Murrow, known as “the face of television,” is at his happiest when working as a news reporter.

Most of the film is set indoors, within the CBS TV newsroom, and Clooney is good at capturing the atmosphere of a place that is a constant hive with secretaries typing, AP and UPI wires clicking away, and camera crews bustling.

The camaraderie between Murrow and his dedicated staff also comes across vividly. His indefatigable crew of reporters includes Don Hewitt (Grant Heslov), Joe Wershba (Downey Jr.), Palmer Williams (Tom McCarthy), Jesse Sousmer (Tate Donovan), John Aaron (Reed Diamond), Charlie Mack (Robert John Burke), and Eddie Scott (Matt Ross). If you recognize some of these names, it’s due to the fact that they have become broadcast legends, though fifty years ago, they were not only beginning their careers, but also willing to put them in danger.

In their meetings, the team members discuss the various topics of the day and potential stories for their show. One such story is that of Milo Radulovich, a navy pilot who has been kicked out of service for being a “security risk.” Declared guilty without a trial, Radulovich had been asked to denounce his father and sister to stay on, but he refused.

All charges against Radulovich have been kept sealed, but Murrow reports his case on his show, despite opposition from Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels), the number two exec at CBS, who fears Murrow might be getting the show into hot water. Nonetheless, Murrow and Friendly are so committed to their cause—and their program—that they are willing to pay for the advertising revenue lost from the show’s sponsors that have military contacts.

Murrow suspects that McCarthy may have had something to do with Radulovich’s dismissal. He worries that the senator’s closed hearings and theatrical vitriol may hide the fact that he has no real proof and thus is severely eroding people’s civil liberties. The Radulovich show airs, and sure enough it prompts an indirect response from McCarthy to Murrow’s questioning of his integrity and probing of his case. McCarthy proceeds with accusing Murrow of being a Communist sympathizer.

The anchor knows that it’s all calculated lies, purely designed to scare his team away. What McCarthy fails to realize is that his attack only prompts the news crew into a more aggressive action. Indeed, after meeting with the supportive CBS boss William Paley (Frank Langella), Murrow decides to fight fire with fire, and reports on all the inadequacies and lies perpetrated by the McCarthy hearings.

The McCarty show airs and Murrow’s editorial, both at the beginning and the end of the show, is declared brilliant. The anchor highlights all the serious issues involved in the McCarthy hearings: the fine and dangerous line between investigation and persecution; the notion that dissent in itself does not connote disloyalty; the idea that accusation is not a proof and that conviction should depend upon hard evidence and legal procedures. He also makes the point that, as defender of freedom and democracy abroad, the U.S. cannot desert its ideology at home.

It’s to Clooney’s credit as co-writer (with producer Grant Heslov) and director that McCarthy is seen and heard in the context by using his own photographs and words, all of which effortlessly exemplify the aforementioned problems.

The decision not to cast an actor to play McCarthy is sound. Listening to his voice enhances authenticity and also reduces the risk of audiences focusing on the performance rather than the speeches. Indeed, considering McCarthy’s idiosyncratic style, no matter what actor would have played him, he would have been charged with impersonation or over-acting.

The nature of “Good Night” as a dry political expose dictates its structure, and some viewers may find film too verbose and formal, due to the long speeches and the specific ways the speeches are filmed. Most of Murrow’s TV broadcasts are formally staged and shot in close-up, with Strathairn proudly and consistently holding a cigarette in his hand.

Nonetheless, at a time when the public is cynical toward TV journalism, “Good Night” is a necessary reminder of another era, one of honest, crusading journalism and high moral and professional responsibility. The movie also serves as a useful reminder of times in which there was clear distinction between information and entertainment, in contrast to the current trend of infotainment and soft news show that are preoccupied with celebs and trivia at the expense of real issues.

For the record, in his speech on “See It Now” broadcast, March 9, 1954, Murrow said: “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.” Murrow ends his seminal speech with with his customary personal signature, “Good Night, And Good Luck” (hence the title).

“Good Night, And Good Luck” boasts sharp imagery, courtesy of the brilliant cinematographer Robert Elswit, a fierce defender of shooting with film, avoiding digital cameras as much as possible, due to the fact that “images shot digitally have “no texture and no grain.”  Elswit shot this film in color, then converted the footage into black and white in post production.  This technique preserved the subtlety of the colors as complex shades of blacks and greys, making the overall look much richer.

History repeats itself: Murrow’s monumental speech is just as relevant today as it was half a century ago.