Sunday, September 7, 2014

All the News that Fits

Film: Good Night and Good Luck
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Once upon a time, journalism actually meant something in this country. These days you have to search pretty hard to find journalism that isn’t slanted in one direction or another. But back in the day, during the days of radio and the early days of television, the news actually meant something and journalistic integrity wasn’t the punchline of jokes. Few people had or have the sort of journalistic reputation enjoyed by Edward R. Murrow. Murrow is something of a hero of mine. He is in many ways the original badass newsman. Good Night and Good Luck is not the story of Murrow’s finest hour, which could be argued was his coverage of the blitz in London. Murrow’s attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC hearings could be argued as the finest hour for journalism period.

The story of the film is simply that. Starting with the release of an airman from the Air Force for refusing to denounce his own father, Murrow (David Straithairn) and his team embarked on a direct attack and response to McCarthy’s accusations and tirades against phantom communism. Among Murrow’s team is his producer Fred Friendly (director and co-screenwriter George Clooney) and reporter Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.), who, in a story that parallels the main action, is forced to hide his marriage to co-worker Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) from the rest of the office due to a non-fraternization policy at CBS.

There is palpable tension throughout the film because Murrow and company were playing a dangerous game. The main reason for this is that McCarthy’s methods of fear and intimidation were based in no small part on smoke and mirrors, threatening with information he didn’t possess and browbeating anyone who reacted in any way against his witch hunt. It also created substantial stress in the CBS offices, including some pressure from the mainly supportive CBS head executive William Paley (Frank Langella). Additional stress comes from accused communist sympathizer and CBS broadcaster Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who is working under that cloud of accusation.

Good Night and Good Luck gets a lot of things right. Choosing to film in black-and-white, which is exactly how Murrow appeared on American televisions during the early 1950s, was absolutely the right way to go here. It is one of the most beautifully filmed black-and-white films of the last several decades—crisp and lustrous, and well-deserving of its nomination for Best Cinematography. Additionally dead-on the money is the decision to use a great deal of actual footage of McCarthy, essentially allowing McCarthy to hang himself with his own rope.

This is also a film that gets the absolute best out of a stellar cast. I’m a fan of David Straithairn, and I’m of the opinion that this is his best performance and his most important role. He plays the role straight. Straithairn’s Murrow is supremely confident but additionally concerned for his own future, the future of his team, and, bluntly, the future of American journalism and the nation as a whole.

I went into Good Night and Good Luck (which were Murrow’s sign-off words) knowing that this was a film I liked a great deal. I had forgotten how truly good it really is and how smart it is. This is a film that has sadly not gotten the sort of love that it truly deserves. Sadly, a part of that may well be the attachment of George Clooney, who was working on only his second film as a director. It’s easy to write off Clooney as something of a dilettante, which is a shame, because Good Night and Good Luck shows incredible maturity behind the camera. Even the choice to avoid music for many scenes but interspersing particular scenes with the powerful and moving voice of Dianne Reeves is again not an obvious choice but what that would be difficult to improve upon.

I freely admit that glowing reviews are less fun to read. They’re also hard to write. With a film I don’t like, I can find plenty of things that I can rail against. With a film like this, I struggle to say much beyond Good Night and Good Luck is one of the best films of its decade. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. If you have, watch it again. And start demanding better journalism for yourself. Do it for Murrow. And pay close attention to just how prophetic the framing speech by Murrow has turned out to be.

Why to watch Good Night and Good Luck: A story of journalism when journalism was vital.
Why not to watch: Because you’ll realize the state of journalism today.


  1. I agree, glowing reviews really are harder to write, but if there's a film to glow over, it's this one. I watched it again last month, and it's pretty much perfect. I was a beat reporter for three years and I happily admit that the state of journalism is complete and utter shit right now. Good Night and Good Luck is a great reminder of what once was.

    1. Whenever I rediscover a film like this one, I'm both delighted and angry. I'm pleased that I've been able to experience a film almost as if new to me. I'm disappointed in myself for forgetting just how damn good it is.

      I did some beat reporting, too, although nothing beyond local stuff for a few extra bucks. My wife was an actual journalist for a few years.

  2. Huh, I find glowing reviews fun to write - perhaps that's one of the reasons I've stuck with the concept of only reviewing movies I'd recommend to others.

    Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote, except the small bit about Clooney. I think the reason this film doesn't get the attention it deserves is, sadly, the same reason news in general has sunk to such a low level of sound bites and tweets - people's attention spans. No, this isn't an outrageously long film; it's the subject matter itself - the news, back when it was real news.

    Perhaps I am being too cynical with my fellow man, but I think too many people's eyes glaze over when someone else tries to describe the plot of this to them.

    1. I'm not sure anyone would peg Clooney as a wannabee today, but in 2005, it wouldn't have been a wayward suggestion.

      That said, there's some truth in what you say. It says something about the state of journalism that a film about it at its best and that has so much going on at such a high level is seen as dull by a large portion of its potential audience.

  3. I've watched this film a bunch of times, and I love it even more every time. It doesn't over stay its welcome and has serious tension, even when we know what's going to happen. It's a fascinating story that moves so quickly, and I don't get why it doesn't get even more raves. It's interesting to note how it already hints at where journalism is headed, though part is probably coming from Clooney of course.

    1. I feel like this is a film I should proselytize.

      The fact that it moves so quickly without losing us is another indication of Clooney's maturity as a director on his second film. It's beautifully paced all the way through.