GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (George Clooney, 2005)

There isn’t much to say about Good Night, and Good Luck, an insubstantial film that takes its title from radio and television commentator Edward R. Murrow’s sign-off. The film’s focus consists of a few TV broadcasts, for CBS, in which Murrow “took on” Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy, an opportunistic U.S. senator who rode the nation’s postwar anti-communist hysteria, brandishing blank sheets of paper that purported to proffer proof of communist infiltration of the U.S. State Department. George Clooney, the co-scenarist (along with Grant Heslov) and director, has implied or stated many times that he wished to suggest a parallel between the atmosphere of political fear that Senator McCarthy generated with his postwar Red witch-hunts, which sought to silence those opposed to his tactics for worry they would be branded as disloyal Americans, and the similar atmosphere that the current Bush administration has engendered, substituting terrorists for communists. This is a noteworthy endeavor, sincerely (if sanctimoniously) pursued by Clooney and his crew; but it comes up short. What Clooney comes up with, which is diffuse and meandering, seems especially lame when compared with Nonny de la Peña’s 2004 spitfire documentary Unconstitutional, which takes more direct and credible aim at current Bush administration practices in its “War on Terrorism”—and, regarding civil liberties, on the rest of us. Clooney never finds the formal means for embodying the fear-fraught political atmosphere his film merely indicates (relentlessly, repetitively). Rather, the smug tone he applies to his uncertain material almost seems, inadvertently, like a mild form of McCarthyism itself. Can Clooney and company really believe that black-white reductiveness is the best tack to take when one is allegedly confronting and challenging black-white reductiveness? Very little critical thinking, then, has gone into this largely silly, almost entirely rhetorical film.

Clooney has chosen to film Good Night, and Good Luck in black and white—surely, a correct decision. However, the chief reason for filming anything in black and white is that this affords the film artist a much greater range and depth of artistic expressiveness. (As filmmaker Wim Wenders has put it, color shows surfaces, black and white, essences.) Clooney, on the other hand, scarcely uses black and white at all, despite the fact that he elected to work in it. He leaves virtually untapped its immense creative possibilities. After its tedious haul (filmmaker and critic Glenn Andreiev has likened this movie to a lumbering brontosaurus without anywhere to go), I could find just two purposes to which Clooney put his black and white. One, it facilitates his mixture of fictional and archival materials; it visually yokes together, for example, the actors playing Murrow and CBS cohorts and McCarthy, who isn’t played by an actor but who appears instead in news footage, including at Senate hearings. The other use Clooney found for black and white is general and atmospheric; cigarette smoke seems to permeate the air at the CBS television headquarters and newsroom. Is that it? Why engage black and white if one is going to do hardly anything at all with it?

This isn’t the film’s worst formal failure, mind you. Not knowing the first thing about directing a film, apparently, Clooney overrelies on closeups, even tight closeups. (Indeed, this overreliance on faces filling the screen, in shot after shot after shot, is one of the main causes for how slowly the film seems to move.) This is stylistic insanity, especially given that one of the unifying ideas of the script is the concert of efforts that culminates in Murrow’s anti-McCarthy broadcasts. Keeping the camera back more of the time would have had greater chance of showing us people working together. (Imagine what Howard Hawks could have done with this material!) Moreover, Clooney compounds this directorial inappositeness with a sweeping brush of egotistical foolishness. Himself playing Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer, Clooney hogs the film, shooting the thing so that his face is the one that fills way too many of those closeups, regardless of whether his character merits such particular attention at a given moment. Cutter Stephen Mirrione abets Clooney in this weird, embarrassing procedure.

But just because the film loses focus, let us not do so ourselves. The film’s overriding failure I have already identified. Good Night, and Good Luck is rendered rhetorical, in the first instance, by its decision merely to refer to the atmosphere of fear that McCarthy chose to exploit for political motives rather than to portray—to show—this context; and, indeed, the film altogether sidesteps the issue of McCarthy’s political motives. Instead of taking a cheap shot at Eisenhower, the film might have done better by explaining why so popular a U.S. president was himself fearful of combatting a fellow Republican like McCarthy until he did so vaguely, indirectly, and after McCarthy’s political demise. One would never guess from this film how popular McCarthy was with the American public—that is, until the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised (and, I might add, not by Murrow’s CBS). The film, in fact, does only a half-hearted job of distinguishing between the two different bouts of media-covered McCarthyism, the Army-McCarthy hearings being the second. Moreover, it is conveniently mum on the subject of McCarthy’s popularity as a function of the press coverage he received—to sell newspapers at public expense. So many of these faults can be traced to the insular treatment that Clooney and company have given the material, the contrivance of organizing it around the conventional ploy of adulating a TV press figure, in this case, one who devoted a few broadcasts—three or four, I think—to attacking McCarthy after McCarthy had already begun to attract public derision from some notable Republicans. One would never guess from this film that Murrow regretted till the end of his days that he had not challenged McCarthy sooner—although that very fact would have enhanced Clooney’s pursuit of contemporary resonance.

David Strathairn makes a fine Murrow, but Clooney is appallingly bad as Friendly, and Frank Langella is, intermittently, almost villainous as boss Bill Paley—to what end, I’m not quite sure. Most engaging, giving the film what charm and humanity it possesses, are Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as Joe and Shirley Wershba, whose marriage, against CBS employee policy, they think they are keeping secret. I am happy to report that the Wershbas are still alive and still a couple.

This news is far better than Clooney’s self-aggrandizing film.


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