Good Night, and Good Luck (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
- George Santayana

It's astounding that a treatment of a factual incident from five decades ago could have such powerful resonance today. Lessons learned, it seems, are not taken to heart, or the next generation willfully ignores the hard truths purchased through blood, sweat, and tears by their parents. Today's climate of escalating paranoia isn't that different from what this country endured in the 1950s, when the birth pains of the Cold War evacuated a placenta named Joseph McCarthy. And while the 2000s have not yet generated a demagogue of McCarthy's stature, the sense of déjà vu is inescapable. Replace the "Communism" of the '50s with "Terrorism" today, and the parallels come into focus. (Note: this should not be interpreted as an argument that terrorism is not a serious threat, but an indication that there are those who exploit it as a means of financial and political gain.)

Good Night, and Good Luck, a dramatized account of the public struggle between revered CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, unfolds against the tapestry of the turbulent 1950s. With bookend scenes taking place at an October 1958 "Salute to Edward R. Murrow," the bulk of the narrative transpires between October 1953 and April 1954. During those months, Murrow devoted a number of episodes of his TV show See It Now to discrediting McCarthy's persecution of men believed by the Senator to be un-American. After McCarthy targeted Murrow and the newsman was able to disprove the most damning allegations, the Senate elected to investigate McCarthy, and the witch-hunts were over. (The title, Good Night, and Good Luck, echoes Murrow's sign-off.)

Most historically based motion pictures stray from the facts in order to cook up the level of drama, but the struggle between Murrow and McCarthy is so intense that there is no need for director/co-writer George Clooney to deviate from the record. Events in the movie unfold as they did in real life. In fact, instead of hiring an actor to play McCarthy, Clooney relies on newsreel footage of the Senator. This adds to the production's sense of verisimilitude, and the decisions to shoot in black-and-white and not use an instrumental score (some music is provided by jazz singer Dianne Reeves) give Good Night, and Good Luck a strong documentary feel. This is not a movie of grand melodrama, but of quiet, understated moments. Its power is in the absence of manipulation.

In addition to chronicling the Murrow/McCarthy struggle, Clooney's movie makes a statement about the "dumbing down" of the mainstream news media. The responsibility of CBS to hard news was being warped by the need to entertain. At one point, Murrow states: "We have a built in allergy to unpleasant information, and our media reflects that." He might as well be speaking about today as the 1950s. TV news is no longer about providing information, but about giving compelling sound bytes that grab the attention but are immediately forgotten. Murrow was a visionary, not only in the way he stood up for what he believed in, but in how he saw the future unfolding.

Of all the newsmen to work at the three major American networks over the years, none (not even Walter Cronkite) has commanded the respect accorded to Murrow. Like David, he "threw stones at giants" and survived. In re-creating Murrow, actor David Strathairn made a careful study of his subject, and has reproduced Murrow's style down to the smallest gesture. Yet Strathairn's work goes beyond imitation and impersonation; he creates an intensely passionate individual who is driven by an inflexible code of ethics. Like other actors who successfully create a cinematic doppelganger of a real person, Strathairn gets under the character's skin.

The supporting cast was selected not with star power in mind, but with an eye toward actors who could do the best job fielding these roles. Clooney is a "big name," but, by playing Murrow's second fiddle, Fred Friendly, he takes a back seat. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson are the husband-and-wife team of Joe and Shirley Wershba, who work together in a newsroom where colleagues are not supposed to be married. Frank Langella is William Paley, the founder and chair of CBS. And Ray Wise, possibly best known as Laura Palmer's father/killer in TV's Twin Peaks, plays the tragic figure of Don Hollenbeck.

If there are movies that appeal primarily to the intellect and others that tug at the heartstrings, Good Night, and Good Luck resides in the former category. In the way it looks back at events with an unblinking eye, the film offers a glimpse of times gone by. Let us hope it is not also peering into the future. This is a fascinating and compelling piece of filmmaking, and its impact is enhanced by the style in which it is presented. Part docu-drama, part thriller, and part cautionary tale, the movie offers something to everyone who craves more than escapism from the cinema. By releasing Good Night, and Good Luck at this time, Clooney is using history to remind us of the precipice upon which we now stand. It is for that reason that I have opened and will close this review with Santayana's oft-quoted line: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Good Night, and Good Luck (United States, 2005)

Director: George Clooney
Cast: David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, George Clooney
Screenplay: George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2005-10-14
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1