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Good Night, and Good Luck

2006-07-12 17:40


It is 1953 and America is in the grip of an anti-communist mania that will later be known as the "Red Scare". The unscrupulous Senator Joseph McCarthy leads the witch-hunt, accusing dozens of innocent people of being communists or communist sympathisers and effectively condemning them without trial through rumour and innuendo. But veteran CBS news journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) has had enough. He and producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) resolve to take a public stand against McCarthy and his bullyboy tactics. Despite the risk to career and reputation, Murrow and his team begin to criticise McCarthy, airing their concerns in the groundbreaking documentary show, "See It Now". The resulting drama, played out on television screens across a nation, is one of the defining moments in television journalism.


Good Night and Good Luck may be a serious and austere piece of cinema with a definite political axe to grind, but it is also a vibrant and frequently thrilling piece of history brought to vivid life. In only his second outing as a director, George Clooney has succeeded in crafting one of the best historical dramas of the last ten years.

One of the film's great strengths is the superb performances by the entire cast. Strathairn is particularly impressive as Murrow, capturing this very public figure down to the smallest mannerisms. Though he has appeared in more than 50 films, Strathairn remains one of Hollywood's most underappreciated talents. The aplomb and poise with which he handles this role will hopefully win him so much deserved recognition.

Clooney, on the other hand, deserves praise for deliberately downplaying the natural charisma and startling good looks that made him such a big star. If you had never seen him on screen before you might think him born to play supporting roles.

Clooney chose his actors well to complement the film's spartan style and setting. Confined almost entirely to CBS's smoky, claustrophobic newsrooms and offices, the film has no room for the kind of razzmatazz that dominates most modern films. Shot in stark unadorned black-and-white, the film never lets you get distracted from the sober historical truths of its story.

Not that the film is all gloom and gravity. One of its great strengths is the levity and humanity it injects into the historical record. Any journalism student of the period would be able to quote from Murrow's iconic broadcasts but it's the moments that surround those broadcasts - the tension, the banter, the friendships - that make the movie truly accessible. It is this connection to the rhythms of everyday life that keeps the movie from degenerating into a dry documentary.

Good Night and Good Luck also beautifully captures the look and feel of an era. Although the clothing and other technical details are expertly rendered, the film's strongest asset is its use of language. Every word of dialogue recalls a time when people thought more carefully about what they were saying, and when broadcasters were trained voice artists.

Although the impact of the story may be diminished for non-American audiences - many of whom have never heard of Murrow - there's no denying the palpable thrill of watching him stand up to McCarthy. The tale has a classic David and Goliath appeal that makes it universal.

But whatever thrills exist are of a very grown up and unglamorous variety. By the standards of most entertainment they are decidedly low key. No one is murdered, there are no car chases or explosions. There is no ultra cool Tarantino-style banter. If anything Good Night and Good Luck is the mirror image of a film like Pulp Fiction. Its thrill derives from an appreciation of reality - however messy and uneven it may be - rather than from the cunningly crafted fantasy that dominates popular film.

The film must also be seen as a tacit criticism of both modern American media and politics. Good Night and Good Luck is no more about McCarthyism than Arthur Miller's The Crucible was about the Salem witch trials. Clooney has decided, unlike most of his preening compatriots, to use his star power to actually say something worth saying.

Good Night and Good Luck is never going to be a box office smash. Its talky nature and relentless seriousness will bore some and irritate others. But anyone interested in seeing a compelling piece of history played out - unglamorous and unapologetic as it may be - will captivated by this stark and beautifully crafted little film.

- Alistair Fairweather

George Clooney directs this fascinating portrait of Edward R. Murrow, the journalist who took a courageous stand against the anti-communist mania created by Senator Joe McCarthy.

Amanda 2006/01/13 12:04 PM
Journalism ethics Strathairn is brilliant in this movie and all media students should watch it to see courageous reporting at work. This is how the press should be, but rarely is. Instead we pander to advertisers and those with money and power, selling our souls to the corporate whore and calling it journalism.
Jimmy 2006/01/14 4:14 AM
Surface skimming Whilst never less than fascinating, in its re-creation of the 'fifties and in its seemless blending of historical TV footage and George Clooney's masterful studio set-ups, I waited, in vain, for "Goodnight and Good Luck" to burrow deeper beneath the skin of its protagonists. There's also too much reliance on a roving camera technique, which eventually gives one the impression that the budget was strained, rather than this having been a device to enhance the intimacy of the studio settings. Not quite the masterpiece I was expecting, but engaging, nonetheless.
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