Good Night & Good Luck

October, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Geetika Narang

Starring:Vinod Nagpal, Shivam Pradhan, Manish Narang, and Abhijeet Banerjee

Few Hollywood stars have the capacity (and the courage) to become good directors, although a number of them have tried to do so. Oliver, Brando and Hanks have all taken a shot at it with varying degrees of success, (and Oliver worked from a script by Shakespeare) but among them, only Robert Duval, (The Apostle) has managed to write, direct and act in a truly memorable film. Until know, he's been the uncrowned king of that cinematic hill--but he may just have to move over and make room for George Clooney, who co-wrote this film, played a substantial role in it and directed in the bargain. It's a superb second directorial effort by Clooney, whose Confessions of a Dangerous Mind made such a splash two years ago. In this examination of the confrontation between newsman Edward R Murrow and Joe McCarthy, the slanderous anti-Communist junior senator from Wisconsin, Clooney deftly employs archival footage of McCarthy and actual transcripts of Morrow's live CBS news broadcasts to create a taut, enormously entertaining film.  More importantly, it invites the audience to compare the tactics employed by those in government today, (and the media mavens covering them) with those in use during the witch hunts of the late 1940's and early 50's. If the results don't make you squirm in your seat, you're just not paying attention.

Clooney begins with Murrow's professional swan song, a speech he made in accepting an industry award in 1958, years after his weekly news program in prime time each Tuesday evening had been relegated to the relative obscurity of Sunday afternoon but before he retired to head the U.S. Information Agency. In that address, the broadcaster, somberly portrayed by David Strathaim, reflects on the lessons to be drawn from analyzing the place of T.V. in the nation's life and culture. Then the storyline moves backward in time to the reporter's early criticisms of McCarthy's tactics in "rooting out Communists" from the nation's government. Working with his program's producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney) and selected members of the CBS news staff, Morrow challenged the accuracy of McCarthy's allegations and finally devoted an entire program to directly attacking the senator's methods, offering McCarthy the opportunity to use Murrow's program to in rebuttal. When that offer was accepted, the embattled politician who had ridden to national prominence as the apostle of "Red Scare" convicted himself out of his own mouth.

While the facts thus covered are well known, the director and his co-screenwriter Grant Heslov grippingly describe the aura of fear that surrounded what now seems like an aberration in our nation's history. Yet in the early '50's, labeling someone a Communist sympathizer was the equivalent of being accused of supporting Islamic terrorism today, and it's sobering to realize that some of the techniques used then, (guilt by association, accusations unsupported by proof, governmental denial of access to information) bear uncomfortable similarity to what this country has experienced since 9/11. George Santana's admonition that "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it" could not be more aptly applied to the final lines Morrow utters, when he foresees that, instead of being used to inform and education the citizens of a democracy, T. V. was in danger of being reduced to little more than" lights and wires in a box" 

As Morrow, Strathaim provides just the right degree of gloomy integrity to the man now lionized as the medium's finest journalist. The actor delicately balances the Morrow's personal integrity with a flinty regard for the importance for his own role in current affairs. Clooney shows great wisdom in underplaying his role as Morrow's chief lieutenant; he's not the star here. The script contains of pair of acidic putdowns of Friendly provided by CBS head Bill Paley, (powerfully portrayed by Frank Langella) and Sig Mickelson, (Jeff Daniels) one of the network's executives who feared sponsor retribution from Morrow's outspoken reporting. Both men obviously felt more comfortable pounding on Morrow's second in command rather than facing the stoic retorts of Morrow himself, and it's to Clooney's credit that he takes his shots with such good humor. (Would a less self-assured actor star have shrunk from playing a person so obviously vulnerable to the put-downs of his superiors?) Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson are equally fine as members of the news staff hiding an important piece of personal information from the network; that it's ultimately revealed as a red herring turns out to be the movie's sole noticeable flaw.

Clooney's decision to film in black and white in order to add a level of authenticity to the actual footage of McCarthy fits perfectly with the director's desire to capture this specific time and place as realistically as possible; the claustrophobic feel of the control room, the chaotic crunch of deadlines on a live broadcast and the ubiquitous presence of chain smoking by nearly everyone involved, (Morrow was to die from lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 57). All invite enviable comparison with that long forgotten T.V. series "You Are There". 

Clooney's fascination with the intersection of fact and fiction in the world of hard news and entertainment first surfaced in his curious decision to film Dangerous Mind, game-show host Chuck Barry's account of his employment by the CIA as an undercover assassin during the era when he was providing television audiences with "The Gong Show", one of the more brain-damaging programs of early T.V. In that movie, the director deliberately chose not to take sides on the veracity of Barry's outlandish claims; when compared with those repeatedly made by McCarthy in this film, Clooney deftly makes his point; the bigger the lie, the more important it is to speak it loudly and often. Morrow hated the potential television possessed to do just that; Good Night & Good Luck drives that point home with verve and sophistication. Clooney has made a thought-provoking movie that also works superbly as mass entertainment. Even a critic as harsh as Morrow would be proud to be identified with it. 

Clooney is much too engaging on the screen to depart from it for a career behind the camera, but he proves here he's certainly capable of doing so. This one ought to be on everyone's must see list, especially if you're old enough to have lived through the immensely troubled time Clooney and Company so meticulously describe.       

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