The first of the many problems that ruin George Clooney’s noble but misguided “Good Night, And Good Luck” is evident from the opening frames: the black-and-white cinematography. No, there is nothing wrong with making a film in black-and-white. But it is the style of monochrome used here that creates an imbalance: it is a cold, antiseptic, harshly lit cinematography which is completely at odds with the film’s story of courage and passion. The black-and-white does not enhance the film. Rather, it dilutes it, chills it, and makes it seem like an artsy distraction rather than artistic statement.
But perhaps the cinematography is the least of the flaws that never stop running through “Good Night, And Good Luck.” This biopic detailing newsman Edward R. Murrow’s success in exposing the witch hunt tactics of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and thus speeding his downfall should have been a slam dunk. But instead, Clooney has littered his film with such a high quantity of mistakes that it is hard to know where exactly to begin finding fault.
In no particular order, here is a list of where Clooney went very wrong:
DAVID STRATHAIRN’S PERFORMANCE. Casting David Strathairn as Murrow was a daring move. Strathairn is a fine character actor with a distinguished filmography, but he is not “box office.” He’s also not Murrow. He does an adequate vocal imitation of the celebrated broadcaster in a Rich Little sort of way (it sounds 90 percent like the famous man, but never a pure 100 percent). Strathairn bears no physical resemblance to Murrow, so this has been resolved by giving a harsh make-up job and the instructions not to smile. As a result, Strathairn looks embalmed and behaves in a dyspeptic manner (Murrow actually had a captivating smile). Why Clooney didn’t bother to play the role himself is a mystery, since he bears more of a resemblance to Murrow than Strathairn (he took the smaller part of CBS News producer Fred Friendly, of whom he bears no resemblance).
THE DIRECTION. As he first showed in his 2003 “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and as he proves here, Clooney is not a good director. The film’s pacing is sluggish, the scenes are poorly blocked, and the ensemble cast (which includes Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels) come across as mere ciphers and not full-blooded characters. McCarthy is played by McCarthy – the film uses the newsreels and kinescopes of the era to show the man as he was. It is a novel idea, but it doesn’t work since ultimately it winds up having a bunch of identifiable actors looking at a screen and commenting on the real life they are allegedly imitating.
THE BLACK LADY SINGING JAZZ. The who? It seems “Good Night, And Good Luck” doesn’t have a full score. Instead, Clooney interrupts the action every now and then to have Dianne Reeves, billed last in the cast as “jazz singer,” show up to perform tuneful standards of the early 1950s. Reeves is seen performing either in a recording studio near Murrow’s offices (it is never explained how a jazz recording studio is in the middle of a news operation) or at some unidentified club. She is the only African-American to have any significant on-screen time in “Good Night, And Good Luck.” To her credit, Reeves is a dynamic personality with a killer voice and it is a shame she doesn’t get any dialogue. (Murrow, for all of his civil libertarianism, never saw the problem in running an all-white and virtually all-male news staff.) But to the film’s detriment, her presence is an intrusion (albeit a jazzy one) and it keeps derailing the story’s flow.
THE FACTS. “Good Night, And Good Luck” sweeps aside too many facts regarding the rise of Sen. McCarthy. For at least a half-dozen years prior to Murrow’s first broadcast against McCarthyist tactics (regarding the dubious prosecution of a Navy pilot due to his father and sister’s alleged Commie leanings), the anti-Communist fervor was overpowering. The House Un-American Activities Committee brought kangaroo court tactics to Capitol Hill, using malicious smear tactics against too many people. At no time in “Good Night, And Good Luck” is the back story to the McCarthy era presented, let alone the multitude of lives which were ruined in this political maelstrom. Alger Hiss is cited, but Richard Nixon’s role in Hiss’ downfall is ignored – and don’t look for Whittaker Chambers because he’s not here either.
The film would like the audience to think McCarthy alone ran amuck as a Red baiter while the country quivered in fear – only William F. Buckley Jr. and some long-forgotten columnist for a long-defunct New York newspaper are cited as being McCarthy supporters. In fact, McCarthy and his ilk could never have existed had there not been broad popular support for their bully tactics. (The film briefly mentions the Hearst newspapers as backing McCarthy, forgetting that Henry Luce’s magazines were also behind the senator – of course, Warner Independent Pictures, the film’s distributor, is a subsidiary of Time Warner, which now owns the Luce properties, and that may explain this oversight.)
Popular support for McCarthy waned only after Murrow’s “See It Now” broadcasts in 1953 and 1954, when the truth behind his campaigns was revealed. But prior to that, McCarthy had plenty of supporters (even from the so-called liberals, as witnessed by the presence of Robert F. Kennedy as part of his Congressional investigative team).
Also, the film casually forgets that Murrow’s network, CBS, actively participated in the blacklisting of numerous creative artists during this time. Murrow could not have been unaware of this. The film is silent on this well-documented blot on the CBS record.
Furthermore, “Good Night, And Good Luck” gives the impression that Murrow’s other talk show, “Person to Person,” was a stupid piffle in which the broadcaster asked puff questions of insipid celebrities. In fact, “Person to Person” was one of the most enlightening and compelling talk shows in the history of the medium. While the program’s celebrity guests naturally attracted the most attention, the prestige given the show was so strong that many famous names agreed to be interviewed by Murrow and would not appear on other talk shows (including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart).
THE CHEAP GAY SHOT, THE MISSED GAY SHOT. Speaking of “Person to Person,” the Clooney film takes a cheap shot at Liberace, of all people. The film inserts a Murrow interview with the flamboyant pianist from “Person to Person” in which they discuss the latter’s hopes to get married in the near future. While splashing pink paint on Liberace, “Good Night, And Good Luck” completely overlooks the very gay shenanigans which ultimately caused McCarthy to crumble: the attempt by the senator’s gay aide, Roy Cohn, to arrange preferential military treatment to his “protege,” G. David Schine, after the latter was drafted. And anyone who recalls that era will confirm the very loud whispers that went about concerning McCarthy’s sexual orientation. No less a figure than Lillian Hellman (one of the very few people who gave it back to the witch hunters) publicly denounced McCarthy, Cohn and Schine as “Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde.” It is inexplicable that Clooney opted to drive by this while kicking Liberace.
WE LIKE IKE, BUT… “Good Night, And Good Luck” closes with a newsreel segment of President Eisenhower extolling the values of American society, including the right to self-determination. Any amateur historian will (pardon the inappropriate pun) raise a red flag over that. Eisenhower ran for and was president during the height and fall of McCarthy, yet at no time did he ever speak out against the senator’s tactics. If anything, Eisenhower’s failure to say anything contributed to McCarthy’s reign of terror. Closing the film with a quote from Eisenhower is the ultimate in stupidity – why not show a Daffy Duck cartoon, since Daffy was just as much of a vocal McCarthy opponent as Eisenhower?
THE PARALLELS FROM THEN TO NOW. Some people have been itching for controversy in trying to link the McCarthy parallels of the 1950s to the reign of Dubya today. Forget it, because it doesn’t fit. The shame of yesteryear’s politics bear little resemblance to the shame of today’s (and, of course, there is no Murrow on today’s TV). “Good Night, And Good Luck” does not play as a warning against contemporary government, so Bush-bashers have to look elsewhere.
Those who wish to know what Murrow accomplished should seek out the recent DVD collection of his most famous broadcasts to see the original man in action. “Good Night, And Good Luck” does not do Murrow justice. In fact, the film is a travesty.
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