Clooney works the celluloid
December 2, 2005
Filed under Archives
In Good Night, and Good Luck, actor-turned-director George Clooney shows the events that took place during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings in Washington, D.C. The famous CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow decides to challenge the senator’s ethics on his own show despite urges from his co-workers to drop the story. With the assistance of his producer, Murrow televises the rise and fall of the senator and engages in a prolonged tug-of-war that could end his career. The film, with the exception of the opening scene, stays entirely within the CBS Studios as the telecasts are aired. The staff becomes anxious, and some begin to wonder if they, along with Murrow, are going to see their jobs taken away. As the story progresses, McCarthy’s world begins to unravel on live television as the public and media turn on him. The majority of this is seen through old newsreel footage of the actual trials and the rebuttal against Murrow that McCarthy gave on one of the broadcasts.
In addition to writing and directing the film, Clooney plays Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly. David Strathairn gives a brilliant performance as Murrow; from his speech to the news personalities that open the movie to the jarring, abrupt climax, he displays just the right amount of subtle tension and intensity as his character relentlessly defies his critics and tries to bring down McCarthy.
The film is sharply photographed by Robert Elswit. He has done a superb job of portraying the period, using a crisp, monochrome color scheme. It really does feel like something out of the ’50s. The smoke that permeates the news and screening rooms is shot in such a way that you expect it to fill the theater.
The fluid work of the camera comes in handy, especially during the frantic broadcast scenes, where the phone boards light up after angry viewers call in with their thoughts on the show. The intense close-ups, used to their greatest effect during the unbroken shots where Murrow speaks directly to the camera, reveal small nuances in the characters beyond what words can communicate.
The rest of the cast has a tough job standing next to Strathairn’s towering performance, but there are many talented actors at hand. Particularly notable performances include Patricia Clarkson’s role as Shirley Wershba, a woman who’s behind-the-scenes marriage with Joe (Robert Downey, Jr.), a co-worker, adds to the drama (married couples were not allowed to work at CBS together); Ray Wise as an anchor on CBS who can’t handle the flack from covering the McCarthy story; and Frank Langella as the boss of the evening news who finds himself in hot water because of Murrow’s button-pushing.
Clooney does many things right with this movie, including the inspired choice to use archival footage of McCarthy, rather than an actor. Also, Clooney bookmarks key scenes in the film with jazz sessions taking place in one of the CBS studios. They help to break the intense mood, and are the only moments in the film with any music.
One minor complaint, which is rare nowadays with so many long movies, is that the film feels rushed. Perhaps Clooney thought the time was sufficient to tell his story, or maybe I was just immersed in the movie and wanted to see more of the history unfold.
Good Night, and Good Luck offers a fascinating glimpse into news and media during a turbulent time in America’s history. The similarities between McCarthy’s ethics and the politics of today as reported by the media may be unsettling to some, but it makes the film’s history all the more relevant.