March 8, 2006 – What is director George Clooney up to in "Good Night, and Good Luck"?
On the one hand, it's a powerful movie — a stirring account of how legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow brought down Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy during his historic 1954 communist witch hunt using the House Un-American Activities Committee.
However, David Denby, writing in the New Yorker magazine, says that "Celebrating the end of McCarthyism is only part of Clooney's game. His real intention appears to be to deliver a blow to the patella of a conglomerate-controlled press corps that, until recently, has indulged the Bush Administration's most extravagant smears and lies."
"There's little gravy in attacking Joe McCarthy in 2005," Denby says. "The issue, then and now, was how a commercial medium should address the public interest."
Denby isn't alone in this opinion. Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says, "[The movie] insists the media needs to mean something, that it must have a say in the public discourse it covers – though the precise nature of that say is still up for discussion."
The movie makes no attempt to chronicle Murrow's entire career. "He was a journalist beyond reproach," notes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Tribune. "His radio broadcasts covering the London Blitz led to a peacetime career as the most famous newsman in the new medium of television journalism."
The critics are united in praise of David Strathairn's portrayal of Murrow. Gillespie says, "The ever-present cigarette in hand, the clipped enunciation, impeccably replicated, and wearing a series of natty suits, Straithairn nails Murrow's manner and carriage."
Clooney casts himself as Fred Friendly, the "See It Now" producer, an easygoing counter to Murrow's intensity. Ty Burr, in the Boston Globe, says, "The performance needs to be ingratiating and intelligent, and it's both of those things."
Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, according to Burr, "provide further warmth as Joe and Shirley Wershba — secretly wed despite the network's ban on married couples." Burr adds that "while Jeff Daniels plays producer Sid Mickelson as a man waiting with hope and dread to see what Murrow will do next. As newsman Don Hollenbeck, who committed suicide in 1954 under pressure from McCarthyite forces in the press, Ray Wise trembles rather too heavily with oncoming martyrdom."
But, Burr continues, "this is a beautifully professional movie about professionals coming to appreciate the full measure of their duty, as journalists and as Americans. Early in 'Good Night, and Good Luck' — the title comes from Murrow's on-air sign-off — a loyalty oath floats around the CBS offices, but the newsman doesn't blink. 'We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,' he tells the viewing public. 'We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home.'"
Ouch. As if this weren't a sharp enough jab in the side of 21st century broadcast journalism, addicted to ratings and terrified to take a stand (except for Fox News, which is all stand, all the time), Clooney opens and closes the movie with bits of the 1958 industry dinner speech in which Murrow correctly foresaw and mourned the future of his medium.
"Murrow is offended by McCarthy," says Ebert. "He makes bold to say so, and why. He is backed by his producers and reporters, and supported by the leadership of his network, CBS, even though they lose sponsors, and even though McCarthy claims Murrow himself is a member of a subversive organization.
"There are times when it is argued within CBS that Murrow has lost his objectivity, that he is not telling both sides," Ebert continues. "Murrow argues that he is reporting the facts, and if the facts are contrary to McCarthy's fantasies, they are nevertheless objective. In recent years few reporters have dared take such a stand, but at the height of Hurricane Katrina, we saw many reporters in the field who knew by their own witness that the official line on hurricane relief was a fiction, and said so."
Ebert lauds Clooney's directorial judgment. "The other key character is McCarthy himself, and Clooney uses a masterstroke: He employs actual news footage of McCarthy, who therefore plays himself. It is frightening to see him in full rant, and pathetic to see him near meltdown during the Army-McCarthy hearings, when the Army counsel Joseph Welch famously asked him, 'Have you no decency?' His wild attack on Murrow has an element of humor; he claims the broadcaster is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the anarchist 'Wobblies,' who by then were more a subject of nostalgic folk songs than a functioning organization."
Burr calls the movie "a puzzle: a hermetically sealed period piece so intensely relevant to our current state of affairs that it takes your breath away." He is emphatic: "It is a call to civic responsibility and renewed purpose in broadcast journalism that demands to be seen and discussed by audiences of all ages and political stripes. It's that important."
Gillespie concludes, "These days, when an interview with a post-prison Martha Stewart and the birth of Britney's new baby are considered news, you have to wonder. Murrow may have won his battle, but we may all have lost the war."
The movie lost its bid for an Oscar. Clooney did get the statuette, but for supporting actor in the Middle East oil puzzler, "Syriana." He said at the ceremony, "I guess this means I'm not getting the directing award," or words to that effect. He didn't, but he captured the respect of the critics and those folks at home who pay to see the movies.
The movie starts Thursday at Market Square East. It runs 93 minutes and is rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language.
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