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2005-11-05 07:09
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck is an elegant-looking chronicle of CBS and Edward R. Murrow's daring coverage of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid 1950s. Featuring a fine lead performance from David Strathairn, the narrative is terse and even-handed without being humorless. There is a sense of cool detachment in the storytelling that brought to mind All the President's Men, but Robert Elswit's black and white cinematography has a sensuality that suggests Bruce Weber's lush documentary about Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost. In fact, Clooney's direction reminded me of something the late film critic Pauline Kael once wrote about Bob Fosse's movie, Lenny:

Fosse has learned a phenomenal amount about film technique in a short time; Lenny is only his third movie (after Sweet Charity and Cabaret), and it's a handsome piece of work. I don't know of any other director who entered moviemaking so late in life and developed such technical proficiency...Lenny is...controlled and intelligent.

Clooney has the good sense to surround himself with top-notch professionals and this movie is an accomplished piece of filmmaking, a big leap forward from his first picture, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

The story remains fixated on Murrow and his production team at CBS, and as such it is insular and isolated. The behind-the-scenes look at how TV news operated is absorbing--I especially liked the interplay between Murrow and his right-hand man Fred Friendly (Clooney) during the broadcasts. McCarthy appears as himself, (no actor portrayed him) in old TV footage. This lends an immediacy to the action that was effective.

Clooney's movie presupposes that the audience has a general understanding of the kind of fear and terror that McCarthy's witch hunts had around the country. But as the narrative unfolds as a string of victories for Murrow (with one notable but predictable exception), watching righteous moral victories, while they may seem appropriate and fitting, also feel dramatically flat. However, Clooney establishes a documentary feel to storytelling early on so that watching Murrow's staff celebrate the downfall of McCarthy doesn't feel phoney or rigged. It feels right, though it doesn't necesarily draw you closer to the characters.

Bear in mind that I watched this movie on a Friday night in Manhattan with a decidedly Liberal audience. There were many ironic chuckles throughout as the crowd associated Murrow's words with the current political climate. This kind of righteousness borders on smugness, and makes me uncomfortable, no matter how much I may agree with it in principle.

Frank Langella's performance as CBS chairman William Paley is grave and underplayed. His scenes with Straitharn are the dramatic highlight of the movie. I don't know if the movie would have suceeded without them. The supporting cast, including Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and Robert Downey Jr is solid, though a subplot involving Clarkson and Downey Jr doesn't amount to much. Clooney, as he has demonstrated in his leading roles (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Three Kings) is an uncommonly unselfish star. He plays well with others and never calls attention to himself.

While it is clear that Clooney is a Liberal who is using Murrow's story to make a point about the political and media climate today, he has the good judgement to not go overboard. I think his film does justice to Murrow, who was one of the most admirable journalists this country has ever produced. And weighing in at a reasonable 93 minutes, you never feel as if Clooney is hitting you over head, even for a "civics lesson." It's worth catching this one on the big screen. It's not every day we get to see a sharp looking black and white movie in the theater anymore.

Comments
2005-11-05 17:52:39
1.   Beth
I lovee your baseball writing, Alex, but I also love your non-baseball writing. what a great off-season treat.
2005-11-05 20:04:32
2.   Rich
An excellent review.

For anyone interested in another film on the McCarthy era, I would like to recommend "Hollywood on Trial:"

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074635/

2005-11-05 20:37:43
3.   Jason Wojciechowski
I thought the fatal flaw of the film was the isolation of the story from the events surrounding those shown to the audience.

To really understand the momentousness of Murrow's attacks on McCarthy, we have to know two things: (1) as you mentioned, the mood of the times, with the anti-Communist fever that took perhaps its most dramatic form in McCarthy; and (2) Murrow's status as an impeccably objective journalist.

The latter is perhaps even more important than the former. We all learn in high school about the McCarthy era. Many people will be coming to this film, however, not knowing much about Murrow, if anything at all. There's an implication that his stand against McCarthy is a big deal for him personally, but we never get any context, we're never shown why it's so huge.

How could Clooney and crew have fixed this? I don't think it was fixable. It was inherent in the movie that he wanted to make that this wasn't going to take a standard narrative film. It was, in some sense, a no-win situation: either he gives us the history, which is boring and lengthens the film; or he doesn't and we proceed on assumptions. He chose, probably correctly, the latter as the lesser of two evils, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an evil.

By no means does this mean I didn't like or enjoy the movie. It's made my Top Ten for the year so far (though it'll be knocked out at some point, as I see some of the winter movies: Jarhead, the next Harry Potter, Syriana, Walk the Line), and it certainly was beautiful, even if the "smoky black and white" look felt a little contrived.

Also, I should note, I thought this review was excellent and, as 1 noted, as well-written as usual.

2005-11-06 08:41:23
4.   Alex Belth
Jason, that's an good point. I don't think Clooney could have changed that without opening up the scope of the movie, and then, well, he'd simply have a very different movie on his hands. While I felt that the behind-the-scenes mechaniations of the TV news were generally handled well, there were a few moments here and there where I felt like I was watching a group of actors pretending to be newsmen. In all, though, I think the treatment was evocative and successful.

But considering how confined the movie's settings were it didn't achieve the kind of tension you got in movies like "Fail Safe" or "Twelve Angry Men." This isn't an entirely fair analogy, but those were two movies that jumped to mind...

2005-11-07 11:47:58
5.   KJC
Alex: you're obviously as passionate (or close) about movies as you are about the Yankees. Have you ever considered writing a movie review blog/site in addition to BB? That way, your movie reviews wouldn't be relegated to the offseason...
2005-11-07 19:12:01
6.   uburoisc
Love your site and your insights on baseball and life; it always makes me homesick for New York, but I have to strongly disagree with you on this one, Alex. Having majored in Russian, and particularly Soviet History, I am always left with a vague unease at the general ignorance of the period in question, particularly the Soviet role; it's like the recent breakthrough in our knowledge of the Soviet Era over the past decade never took place.

Even with a large (and growing) body of evidence of the absolute horrors of Soviet terror and mass murder, the regime always seems to get a pass with the Hollywood cognoscenti, who seem either poorly informed, willfully ignorant, or both. But mostly I think it is just the effect of years of mythmaking and devotion to the tribal idols, which this film upholds with perfect fidelity.

If you want a clearer picture of what the Soviets were, how they operated, and the extent to which they did penetrate the United States at so many levels, don't bother with "Goodnight;" it's just another rehash of bad history, old scores, and horseshit. Instead, I'd recommend any number of important works over the past decade, starting with the Yale series on communism by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Both men have made monumental strides in pulling back the veil on Soviet espionage and why it created a man like Joseph McCarthy. It will also help to understand the most inscrutable aspect of the Cold war: how so many otherwise thoughtful Americans could be so credulous as to the reality of the Soviet Union.

The whole back story that "Goodnight" drops is the Soviet Union itself. My problem with this film, and my problem with Mr. Clooney, is the same: neither seems inclined to address the fact that the fictitious "witches" of the film were actual Soviet spies, saboteurs, propagandists, party-members, and fellow travelers of all sorts. Hiss, by the way, was a Soviet spy, as were the Rosenbergs, you can believe the very slender thread of people who continue to uphold their innocence, but you may as well believe OJ was framed if you are so inclined. Laurence Duggan. Murrow's friend was a Soviet spy who killed himself after being caught; Murrow blamed the investigators for his death. And Annie Lee Moss was a communist; she lied about it and should never have been given any kind of security clearance.

As far as "blacklisting," the generations of Russian intellectuals (Mandelstam, Babel, Anna Ahkmatova, Pasternak, Alexei Tolstoi, Gorky, Bulgakov, and Prokofiev just to name a small handful) who were tortured, murdered or relentlessly hounded by the very entity that people like John Henry Lawson were defending, would have viewed the HUAC trials a little differently. Also, the "suffering" of Hellman, Hammett, Trumbo, Lawson, et al. was so slight as to almost risible, especially in contrast to the very real persecution of the Soviet intelligentsia. If anything, the "blacklist" gave their case cause celebre status among the leftist industry types who were to rise during the next generation—where it remains decked out in Hollywood tinsel. What a farce! While assholes and liars like Lardner and Hellman feigned injury, the whole of Eastern Europe was being force to swallow a boot heel, and while the "champions" of freedom among the American left were rallying to their new icons, the icons were completing a lifelong whitewash of the gulag archipelago. Of course, the real horror of the Soviet Union was known very early on, but with so many western leftists working so hard for the Comintern, it took decades longer than it should have for us to realize the danger.

The reason the Soviets were so successful, initially, in infiltrating the West (Britain and the US) was that there were a substantial number of well-educated, ivy-league traitors who had, by virtue of their position and background, wormed their way into the highest levels of American and English government; these were often the children of great wealth and privilege who went to first-rate schools and who went into various branches of politics and public service. They were also communists and were passing along sensitive secrets to the Soviets for decades. Meanwhile their friends were running cover for them in Washington, the media and in Hollywood.

If Czeslaw Milosz is right to be concerned about "the vulnerability of the twentieth-century mind to seduction by sociopolitical doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future," then why shouldn't we remain perplexed at the unwillingness of Hollywood to at least come to recognize that the people saying that it was OK to be a Communist or say laudable things about the Soviet Union were either nuts or vile or both. No one would be defending the fellow travelers anymore if they were Nazi apologists, so why should people whose guiding ideology (and I mean that in an ironic and pointedly Marxist sense) was so hostile to liberal democracy be treated as mere dissenters? If it is indeed true that McCarthy was reckless and irresponsible, and both Klehr and Haynes argue he was, then when will the movie be made showing that Whittaker Chambers and Elia Kazan were actually right, that the apologists for the Soviet gulag state were abetting mass murder as a political program.

Obviously, HUAC and McCarthy were not the same thing. McCarthy did not emerge until 1950, and in the Senate, but by that time Truman had largely taken care of the problem; McCarthy was grandstanding for partisan purposes, mainly. And Murrow wasn't ahead of the curve; he was actually rather a latecomer, even something of an opportunist, when it came to going after McCarthy. Plenty of good print journalists had been on him for years, and even the Republicans were trying to get away from him by the time he made McCarthy look bad (which he did not so much by grilling Joe as through mean editing, using the cutting room to make McCarthy appear to be nuts.

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