Good Night, and Good Luck (Clooney, 2005)
Good Night, and Good Luck is a high stakes drama in which protagonist and antagonist never meet. They exchange words, but always indirectly, through the media. This is perhaps the most striking success for George Clooney as director -- the way in which he demonstrates that words which may have changed the course of a great country were uttered in a situation where the speaker could have little to no idea of how they were being received. Following each controversial broadcast, there is a wonderful delay where Murrow (played by David Straithairn) and his team of journalists and crew members wait for the inevitable response, both from supporters and detractors. What tense, agonizing moments those must have been – and Clooney captures beautifully the sense of fear and excitement that the key players may have felt while waiting for the morning ‘reviews’.
It’s a shame that the lessons learned from the strange belligerent career of Joseph McCarthy have to be retaught to a new generation, but Clooney’s film comes at a perfect time, when the sweep of emotionalism in politics and public discourse has largely drowned out reason and fact-based decision making. Clooney aptly identifies Murrow as a role model for our times and there is exhilaration and joy to be had in watching him calmly weather intimidation from McCarthy and the money-minded reins of his superior. In the lead role, Straithairn is utterly convincing, masterfully handling Murrow’s on-air monologues with dignity and charisma. However, it is the way he embodies the off-camera Murrow that I found most impressive. Many actors make the mistake of assuming that television celebrities behaved in exactly the same manner going about their daily lives as they did in public view. Straithairn offers us a complex man, passionate, but not unreasonable. A man willing to take enormous personal risk, but lacking an air of self-importance that might lead us to question his motives. A man capable of compassion and humor, as well as being an intellectual.
Why is this important? I believe it’s important because, for whatever reason, many Americans seem to have a strange defensive reaction to those who might be able to show them a better way. Perhaps some of us are all still living a post-911 haze, disoriented and unwilling to commit to anything but the simplest, most obvious mode of existence – immediate gratification. Tell me my country is infallible. Give me my tax refund now. Put away those I can’t trust. I believe this Murrow created by Clooney and Straithairn works so well because he comes from an era that has been characterized by myth-makers and romantics as simple, although, of course, it was anything but. Clooney knowingly evokes this mythology in order to twist it, letting Murrow’s humble, understated common sense win the day. Good Night and Good Luck is not just a film to challenge the actions of one administration or party. It challenges both sides to set aside condescension, sarcasm and bullying in order to tackle the day’s most serious issues with integrity. Perhaps most importantly, it challenges the conventional wisdom that both sides to an argument necessarily have equal value. For me, this is key, because, it is the justification that present-day journalists have used to shirk their responsibility. Captivating, visually pleasing and well-timed, Good Night and Good Luck is a thoroughly satisfying film.