An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Good Night, and Good Luck; dir: George Clooney; starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Ray Wise, Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, Tate Donovan, Tom McCarthy, Matt Ross, Reed Diamond, Dianne Reeves. Cert: PG (2005)
This is a movie which wears its liberal heart on its sleeve. George Clooney directs and is a supporting player in this true life drama but it is David Strathairn who walks away with the plaudits in this amazing tale of principled and courageous journalism.
Strathairn plays Ed Murrow, an experienced and popular new broadcaster on America’s CBS news network. He had made his name reporting from London during the height of the Blitz and now he was going to take on the might of Capitol Hill during the McCarthy Witch-Hunts.
He and his producer Fred Friendly, played by Clooney, had become increasingly alarmed at the random way that McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee was operating. It seemed that an accusation was enough to find you guilty in the eyes of both the American public and the judiciary. People’s lives were being ruined by unsubstantiated allegations and by personal vendettas.
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Murrow and Friendly decided to do something about it. They tackled Senator Joe McCarthy live on air and grill him on his methods and used the interview to expose McCarthy’s paranoia about communism and reveal that he was indeed orchestrating a witch-hunt.
This was an amazingly brave thing to do, given the political climate of the time, fortunately the pair had the backing of their boss William Paley (Frank Langella) or at least until the advertisers start pulling their ads.
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Like Charlie Wilson’s War, the subject matter is important and thoughtful but the film itself is presented as an entertaining character-study and a fascinating step back in time to an era which has a troubling echo with today’s world.
The setting acts as another character in this compelling drama. We see not only how a news programme got on air, with the news teams working in claustrophobically small studios, but how the internal politics within the network affected output. One of the most interesting sequences has ‘serious’ journalist Ed Murrow conducting a lightweight, sham interview with Liberace on their equivalent of The One Show. This was his penance for upsetting the apple cart.
Good Night, and Good Luck, which was Murrow’s sign-off catchphrase, has that feel of authenticity because Clooney completely understands this world because his father was a news broadcaster. As an audience we are drawn in to Murrow and Friendly’s gambit, they are both appalled by McCarthy’s accusatorial witch-hunts and they don’t plan to editorialise, they want McCarthy to be the architect of his own undoing.
They plan to use facts to expose the evils of the HUAAC hearings, they want to goad McCarthy into a one to one interview where Murrow plans to give the senator enough rope to hang himself.
Ed Murrow is a wordsmith, he knows the power of a challenging interview while Senator Joe McCarthy is revealed to be a rather dull bully and once the pair meet on air McCarthy has nowhere to go except to fall back on generalisations about the need to defend their country from unspecified communist threats.
It proved to be the beginning of the end for that reviled Senator from Wisconsin. The film is set in 1953, the following year the senate itself censured McCarthy making him one of the few sitting politicians to be disciplined in this public fashion.
Elegantly shot in black and white, the film has a beautiful look to it. The story has weight and urgency but the characterisation is relaxed and believable. The dialogue is delivered in an almost fly-on-the-wall manner, lots of asides and urgent conversations as the next deadline looms.
There is also a couple of human sub-plots which bring home how dangerous McCarthyism was. Ray Wise plays a fellow newsman who is accused of being a Communist sympathiser while Robert Downey Jr and Patricia Clarkson play a suspicious-looking pair who are seen holding a series of clandestine meetings in the CBS kitchen.
Are they communists? No, they are merely married. CBS has a strict no couples policy, so if they have to discuss that night’s dinner or what they are doing at the weekend then it has to be done in secret.
The film is structured like a three act play with jazz singer Dianne Reeves, broadcasting from down the hall, providing the punctuation between political developments.
A hugely engaging film and one which remains sadly relevant to all our lives.