Good Night, and Good Luck
2005Director: George Clooney
Cast: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr.
o our eyes, the image is almost parodic. The big head, the flushed face, the lock of hair dangling precariously over the wide forehead, the narrow mouth that delivered stentorian, red-baiting harangues so ludicrously paranoid that you have to wonder how the man was ever elected dogcatcher, let alone a United States senator. But Joe McCarthy was no parody, sadly enough, and he was not only elected, he came to dominate American politics to such a degree that his very name is associated with the worst kind of demagoguery. How? Why? What bizarre circumstances led to this gin-soaked fabulist cutting a swath through American political life that ruined many people’s lives and left lasting damage to U.S. foreign policy? And, just as importantly, how was he eventually brought down?
Well, Good Night, and Good Luck doesn’t answer all those questions, at least not completely. It’s doubtful that any movie could (although I look forward to the prospect of a talented director attempting to portray McCarthy’s own psyche). But it does offer a partial explanation for McCarthy’s eventual downfall, one that’s as elegantly simple as it is historically accurate– some really smart, brave people decided to stand up to him. One of those people was CBS News’ Edward R. Murrow, whose attacks on McCarthy elevated him from a journalistic giant to a journalistic legend, and the film (rightly) portrays Murrow’s editorial crusade as an example of both institutional and personal courage. In that sense, Good Night, and Good Luck is a particularly intelligent, well-made example of an old Hollywood formula– the plucky underdog rallying the troops for an assault on a marauding bully. The fact that the film also implies that our current media may not have the requisite stones to duplicate Murrow’s act in the face of similar odds only heightens its power and subtlety. This will go down as one of the best films of the year.
It’s important to note that Good Night, and Good Luck could have given itself over to sheer propagandizing, but did not. It certainly has a clear point of view, and is not shy about expressing it, but director, co-writer, and co-star George Clooney keeps a firm hand on the tiller, avoiding excess sermonizing and investing enough skill and quality control to allow the movie to succeed first as a compelling story, and then as a liberal polemic. Shot in black-and-white, and with limited use of sets (practically the whole thing takes place in and around the CBS newsroom), Good Night... derives its narrative energy from its brisk pace and ever-present sense of moral seriousness– watching Murrow and his team struggle with the high risks and dubious rewards of going up against the interests of their own network bosses, let alone McCarthy himself, provides a dramatic framework with which the audience can sympathize. At one key moment, Murrow, played with brilliantly understated force by David Strathairn, finishes a stinging anti-McCarthy editorial by exhaling nervously and wiping the sweat off his brow. Such moments only underscore Murrow’s heroism by demystifying it. Indeed, that dynamic is the key to the film’s success.
Clooney’s great insight is to root his movie in the struggles of the individual characters, which removes the twin barriers of theoretical abstraction and distant history and gives the whole thing something of a cinema verite feel. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) are constantly questioned by their nervous boss, CBS head honcho Frank Paley (a marvelously gruff Frank Langella), who while sympathetic to their cause is well aware of the heat his star journalist is bringing onto the network. Joe and Shirley Wershba are two reporters who not only have to contend with the insanity of McCarthyism, but must withstand the pressure of having to keep their marriage a secret (CBS policy at the time forbid married couples from working at the network together). And, most tragically, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), under constant assault from editorialists accusing him of being a Communist sympathizer, watches his life slowly disintegrate around him while his friend Ed Murrow can only offer a few supportive words. McCarthy’s red-baiting, and Murrow’s direct challenge to it, made CBS News a pressure cooker atmosphere that only the strong could survive. Clooney’s wise decision to set the great majority of the film in and around the newsroom only adds to that sense, implicitly giving the newsroom the feel of a bunker during wartime. And, after a fashion, a war was just what it was, as the conflict between truth-seeking and fear-mongering, press freedom and government pressure, headed for its inevitable conclusion.
In a story as epic and challenging as this, there are a number of places where a film could step wrong, but Good Night... never does. Casting a Joseph McCarthy might have killed the story’s momentum– a Hollywoodized Tail Gunner Joe would have provided too golden an opportunity for an actor’s scene-chewing to destroy the film’s sense of realism– the idea of, say, Brian Dennehy ranting and raving about Communists in the State Department is enough to give me the cold sweats. McCarthy himself featured an element of the totally absurd, and only presenting the man in his own full glory could have jolted the audience into realizing that, hey, wait a second, this guy really existed, and really ran roughshod over civil liberties and civilized political discourse until he finally went too far and flew off the rails. With that in mind, Good Night... relies on actual archival footage for its McCarthy scenes, and the effect is subtly devastating. Much like the real senator did, the film allows McCarthy to destroy himself, first with his demented attack on Murrow and CBS (“a pack of jackals”) and finally with his famous accusations towards the Army that backfired dramatically (“have you no sense of decency, sir?”).
Lest Clooney’s none-too-subtle larger point get lost, he brackets the story with scenes of Murrow accepting a journalism award several years after McCarthy’s downfall. Notwithstanding the opportunity for self-congratulation, Murrow delivers a blistering attack on the increasing superficiality and timidness of network television (a trend he contributed to, as the film demonstrates with a hilarious scene of Murrow lobbing softball questions at celebrity guest Liberace). McCarthy, Clooney argues, may be long gone (although his spiritual descendants never seem to stop popping up). But so might our media’s willingness to challenge the demagogues of our own time. I left the theater cheered by the happy ending to the Murrow-McCarthy story, but downcast at the uncertain endings to our own political narratives. Not bad for ninety minutes in a darkened theater.