George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck is an elegant-looking chronicle of CBS and Edward R. Murrow’s daring coverage of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid 1950s. Featuring a fine lead performance from David Strathairn, the narrative is terse and even-handed without being humorless. There is a sense of cool detachment in the storytelling that brought to mind All the President’s Men, but Robert Elswit’s black and white cinematography has a sensuality that suggests Bruce Weber’s lush documentary about Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost. In fact, Clooney’s direction reminded me of something the late film critic Pauline Kael once wrote about Bob Fosse’s movie, Lenny:
Fosse has learned a phenomenal amount about film technique in a short time; Lenny is only his third movie (after Sweet Charity and Cabaret), and it’s a handsome piece of work. I don’t know of any other director who entered moviemaking so late in life and developed such technical proficiency…Lenny is…controlled and intelligent.
Clooney has the good sense to surround himself with top-notch professionals and this movie is an accomplished piece of filmmaking, a big leap forward from his first picture, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
The story remains fixated on Murrow and his production team at CBS, and as such it is insular and isolated. The behind-the-scenes look at how TV news operated is absorbing–I especially liked the interplay between Murrow and his right-hand man Fred Friendly (Clooney) during the broadcasts. McCarthy appears as himself, (no actor portrayed him) in old TV footage. This lends an immediacy to the action that was effective.
Clooney’s movie presupposes that the audience has a general understanding of the kind of fear and terror that McCarthy’s witch hunts had around the country. But as the narrative unfolds as a string of victories for Murrow (with one notable but predictable exception), watching righteous moral victories, while they may seem appropriate and fitting, also feel dramatically flat. However, Clooney establishes a documentary feel to storytelling early on so that watching Murrow’s staff celebrate the downfall of McCarthy doesn’t feel phoney or rigged. It feels right, though it doesn’t necesarily draw you closer to the characters.
Bear in mind that I watched this movie on a Friday night in Manhattan with a decidedly Liberal audience. There were many ironic chuckles throughout as the crowd associated Murrow’s words with the current political climate. This kind of righteousness borders on smugness, and makes me uncomfortable, no matter how much I may agree with it in principle.
Frank Langella’s performance as CBS chairman William Paley is grave and underplayed. His scenes with Straitharn are the dramatic highlight of the movie. I don’t know if the movie would have suceeded without them. The supporting cast, including Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and Robert Downey Jr is solid, though a subplot involving Clarkson and Downey Jr doesn’t amount to much. Clooney, as he has demonstrated in his leading roles (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Three Kings) is an uncommonly unselfish star. He plays well with others and never calls attention to himself.
While it is clear that Clooney is a Liberal who is using Murrow’s story to make a point about the political and media climate today, he has the good judgement to not go overboard. I think his film does justice to Murrow, who was one of the most admirable journalists this country has ever produced. And weighing in at a reasonable 93 minutes, you never feel as if Clooney is hitting you over head, even for a “civics lesson.” It’s worth catching this one on the big screen. It’s not every day we get to see a sharp looking black and white movie in the theater anymore.