Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
"Good Night, and Good Luck" was originally the signature sign-off
of the legendary newsman Ed Murrow. The eponymous film is a historical
drama about the most important weeks in the post-WWII segment of
Murrow's career, a period in which Murrow and the CBS news team
decided to go toe-to-toe with an infamous U.S. Senator named Joe
I went into this film with great enthusiasm. All of the auspices seemed favorable. David Strathairn is one of the great character actors. I like fact-based dramas in general, and especially when they are about the events of my lifetime. When I was young there was a time when I wanted to be Ed Murrow. The film had something like 96% positive reviews on the Tomatometer. I admired George Clooney's skillful direction in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I've always liked him as a charming if limited performer.
I made some miscalculations in arriving at high expectations. I forgot the two most important adjustments that need to be applied to any movie's critical reception before determining the value of approbation.
Since this film was affected by both factors, I should have realized that its 96% rating was likely to be deceptive, and that turned out to be the case. It's a good movie, but stands far from the greatness implied by that score. All of the things I expected to be good were good, but the film had one major liability that I hadn't anticipated. George Clooney, the competent director, hired an inexperienced ham-fisted screenwriter. Some guy named George Clooney. The first problem produced by that poor hiring decision is that the screenwriter introduces half-baked ideas and sub-plots which he can't manage properly. Joe and Shirley Wershba's secret marriage seems to have no value in the script at all, other than to add the only woman to the "lad's club" cast. Joe Wershba's intriguing question, "Did Murrow really sign this loyalty oath?", goes unanswered and unremarked. At first I thought it was being introduced to show how CBS used the power of Murrow's prestige to intimidate others - "if he signed it, I guess it's alright for a lackey like you" - but that didn't seem to be the case, and once the issue was raised, I wanted to know whether Wershba did eventually sign it, whether Murrow did really sign it, and if he did, his rationale. If Clooney had no intention of developing the idea, why did he introduce it?
The decision of Clooney the director to hire Clooney the screenwriter did more than just introduce clumsy digressions. More important, it tended to make everything in the film as "black and white" as the film itself. In the end, the film should have been about whether Murrow did the right thing, but that isn't how the story got focused. It ended up as an examination of which of the face-to-face antagonists was slicker. There was never any question who would win that battle. Murrow was the master of solemn, unchallengeable gravitas, and was respected for his integrity as well as for his courageous reporting in WW2. In addition, he seemed sophisticated and rational, wrote and spoke in a learned and eloquent manner, knew exactly how to use the camera for dramatic impact, and had a sonorous, authoritative voice. McCarthy, on the other hand, was a disaster on camera. Being both sweaty and rhetorical, as well as a heavy drinker and not a little bit ugly, he immediately conveyed insincerity, abrasiveness, hypertension, unbred loutishness, and smugness. He was just one of those guys that could make your skin crawl as soon as he started talking, no matter what he was saying. Murrow knew that the more rope he gave McCarthy, the more likely the senator would hang himself, and that's exactly what happened. McCarthy went on the air in his rebuttal, called Murrow part of the "jackal pack" out to topple him, and made some flat-out factual errors which Murrow was able to use most effectively against him.
That was the real story of beauty and the beast. 'Twas not beauty killed the beast, but the beast himself. Oh, I suppose that CBS was responsible for McCarthy's decline, in a way, but not just in the way pictured here. The CBS soap operas played as large a part in killing McCarthy as the news department. You see, CBS had such an overpowering line-up of soaps that the fledgling ABC network could not compete during the day. ABC, hungry for daytime programming and ratings, made the desperate and inexpensive gamble of airing the Army-McCarthy hearings live (as did the equally cash-strapped Dumont Network) - all 36 days of the proceedings, gavel-to-gavel. That was what sealed McCarthy's doom. Before that, McCarthy's committee had seemed abstract and remote. Many Americans who were aware of it considered it highly worthwhile. McCarthy became the chairman of the committee in January of 1953 after the GOP took control of the U.S. Senate. By January of 1954, McCarthy's approval rating (per Gallup) had soared from 34% to 50%. Gallup further revealed that the senator was listed fourth on Gallup's annual poll of the most-admired men in 1954. At that time McCarthy had supporters on both sides of the aisle. The Kennedys were among McCarthy's staunchest allies. Joe Kennedy wanted McCarthy to marry one of his daughters, and Bobby Kennedy acted as a counsel for McCarthy's committee.
That bi-partisan and public support disintegrated as soon as McCarthy started to be seen on TV. When Americans started to get a good look at the camera-unfriendly senator, and to hear his rude and outrageous bullying tactics, his approval dropped. It was not just because of the senator's odious personality, but because of the inferences that could be drawn from McCarthy's all-encompassing definition of Communist sympathizers. Of course, there were real Communists in government, and they were dangerous, but the logical extension of McCarthy's accusations led one to believe that just about all Americans were dangerous Communists because of something they said when they were kids, or some group they once joined which turned out to have vague or real Communist ties, or some acquaintances with leftist leanings, or even some criticism they might have made of the senator himself (which he viewed as profoundly un-American). The everyday Americans watching the hearings could easily place themselves in the positions of those accused, and could see that the trail of accusations could lead to their own doorsteps, however patriotic they considered themselves. McCarthy's public support withered. In the midst of the Army-McCarthy hearings in Congress (April-June of 1954), Gallup reported that McCarthy's approval rating had sunk back to 35%. Television exposure had cost him fifteen points in a very short time. Looking back at his belligerent and generally creepy image, I'm surprised it wasn't more. By December of that year, various circumstances led to his censure by the U.S. Senate by a 67-22 vote.
But here's the point: Murrow won the battle in this movie and McCarthy lost - not because Murrow held the moral high ground or because Murrow's path was the better path for America, but because Murrow was as smooth as silk, and McCarthy was a bellicose sot. In the film Murrow seems like a hero because of his eloquent defenses of liberty, but should the movie have been about which man spoke the prettier phrases in the sweetest voice, or about the real issues involved, and Murrow's real significance in the process? Was McCarthy trying to stifle the free press? Was he acting as judge and jury in his hearings? Was Murrow's program really a major factor in the senator's political demise? Did Murrow's attacks do the press more harm than good? Were there ways in which Murrow's attacks were bad for the country? Many people believe that while innocent persons may have been persecuted by the runaway senator, some who may have been dangerously guilty obtained a "get out of jail free" card by virtue of having been victims of the discredited McCarthy. If that was so, was Murrow aware of it, and did it cause him misgivings? These questions are either brushed off completely or answered one-dimensionally. The film tends to lend the impression that McCarthy was simply a sweaty lunatic barking up the wrong tree, but the real point is not that McCarthy was wrong about Communist infiltration in the American government (for subsequent evidence has shown that McCarthy was right about many things), but that the senator was using all the wrong tactics and going after all the wrong people.
I think that Clooney also does no service to Murrow or himself in his portrayal of the broadcast legend as something of an irreproachable demigod. Murrow was a great man in many ways. Remembering his articulate defense of due process and some of his greatest phrases, as channeled by David Strathairn, caused me to choke with emotion more than once, and to rub my eyes a couple of times. Murrow had a way with words, and a sense of drama, but he was also impractical, quixotic, stubborn, self-important, and sanctimonious. His flowery speeches impressed the hell out of me when I was ten but now I can see that his high-toned oratory could be aloof, manipulative, and just downright pompous - and the film gives off no sense that Clooney is aware of that. He still sees Murrow with a ten-year-old's eyes. For example, the script makes it seem as if Murrow had been right to defend Annie Lee Moss as a poor old cafeteria worker being browbeaten and unjustly accused by McCarthy, and subsequently removed without justification from her faithful service to the Pentagon. The result of anti-McCarthy backlash was that Ms Moss was reinstated to her Pentagon job in 1954. Murrow's florid perorations trumped McCarthy's rabid wild-eyed mania, but when the evidence finally surfaced, it revealed that Murrow was the one in error. In this matter, McCarthy was completely right, and Murrow completely wrong. The then-existing evidence against her was rock-solid to begin with, and it was later corroborated by actual Communist party membership rolls. Ms. Moss had been a member of the Communist Party, and was brazenly lying under oath to the committee, perhaps even using her "little old ladyhood" as an emotional shield, thus provoking the harsh questioning she faced, and possibly justifying her dismissal from Pentagon employment. Another perfectly justifiable way to look at it is that Murrow's meddling got a member of the Communist Party reinstated to a job in the Pentagon! Yet the film makes it seem as if Murrow was somehow right and McCarthy wrong in this matter.
McCarthy was wrong about many things, perhaps most things. I would argue that he was wrong on balance, and dangerous to the country. But he was not Hitler or Stalin. He was also right about many things, and the film does not leave one with that balanced perspective. In portraying McCarthy as a cartoon ogre, the film tends to be a one-dimensional, one-sided ... er ... witch-hunt. Say, I wonder where they got that idea!
The problems with the Murrow character go beyond whether he was right or wrong on the issues. The Murrow of this film is no real man, nor any more than an archetype of a self-righteous do-gooder. He is a guy who has no jokes, who never discusses his wife or kids, nor gets pissed off and cusses at the cigarette machine, nor speaks casually in everyday speech. He seems to live only to deliver idealistic, measured pontifications, his only vice a well-deserved glass of scotch to ease the tensions from a hard day of saving the world. The film is nearly a hagiography, presenting Saint Ed as the liberal answer to Saint Ronnie. In my opinion, Clooney needed to let Murrow be a flesh-and-blood guy who triumphed not because he was a saint, or because he knew how to present himself on camera without burping, but because he was right about the Senator's sleazy tactics. In that respect, the script falters by failing to give Murrow nuance and a full-blooded character.
Let me mitigate what I have written by admitting that I like the film on balance. I am not complaining that the film is inadequate, but that it is a pretty good film which is not as great as it was cracked up to be. I disliked some of the artistic decisions made by George Clooney the director, like the jazz singer who appears out of nowhere to provide scene transitions, but Clooney did an excellent job of creating dramatic tension, especially with moments of silence: the quiet in the studio after Murrow's McCarthy attack, the loneliness of CBS founder Bill Paley walking the halls of his empire at night, the silence that always occurs in a newsroom just before the "on air" light flashes, the men waiting for the inevitable phone calls from more powerful men, the understatement of Murrow's obit for Don Hollenbeck and the audience reaction thereto, the trepidation of Murrow sitting quietly outside Paley's office like a third grader summoned to the principal's office.
The decision to use archival footage of Joe McCarthy rather than to hire an actor was a touch of sheer genius. Whether you agree with Joe McCarthy or not, it is impossible to watch him in action and conclude that the senator was anything but a rude, reckless, hip-shooting bully in the hearings. I think even Ann Coulter would have to agree with that assessment, although she may find other reasons to praise or justify him. McCarthy's repulsive public personality could not have been portrayed as well by an actor because even if the actor duplicated McCarthy precisely, people would have felt it was overacting. In fact, some viewers have complained that the actor playing McCarthy was too hammy, even though 100% of the footage is McCarthy himself.
Similarly, the decision to use black and white was absolutely the right one, not because it gives the film a "50s feel", but because it was the only possible choice once the excellent decision had been made to use real McCarthy footage. Since the archival footage is in B&W, director Clooney was able to interweave it seamlessly into the texture of a B&W film, something he could not have done as efficiently (if at all) if the new footage had been in color.
The performances complement the direction. Strathairn (as Murrow) and Frank Langella (as Bill Paley) command the screen with sheer presence. There are many months yet to go before award season, but I cannot see any possibility that Strathairn will not be nominated for an Oscar. In fact, Strathairn is so good that his performance alone would make the film worth watching, even if it had no additional merit of any kind. But it has more. Above all, it is a film designed to get people discussing ideas, like the cinema of the 70s which featured strong political viewpoints presented in eloquent ways. It is a film far more flawed than the critics contend, yet it challenges us and invites our discussion, and in so doing, it re-establishes that moviemaking can still be a force for intellectual engagement.
Additional external links:
Some thoughts on the film's box office potential:
I hope the film is a success, because I'd like to see more filmmakers create projects like this, and because the story is one which should not be forgotten. I doubt that it will do exceptionally well, despite outstanding reviews and mammoth revenues in test markets, for two reasons:
The film presents an unsensationalized portrait of historical events which few people know or care about, and which have no ostensible connection to today. It's a film made only for two groups: the elderly audience members, who do remember the era; and the thinking audience members, who care to study the lessons of history. Those demographics are not especially lucrative for filmmakers.
In the other hand, gross revenues are not the only factor in profitability. This film was made for a very economical $7 million. It will turn a tidy profit, and will demonstrate in so doing that an inexpensive, quality film can make a solid return without blockbuster grosses. That is very encouraging for independent filmmakers and may also help generate a trend toward more original, more personal, less star-oriented Hollywood filmmaking, especially in the wake of the summer's gargantuan financial disasters from big budget pictures. I would rather see Hollywood make twenty pictures for seven million dollars apiece than one Stealth. Ultimately, that means more choices for the consumer, more originality, and more chances for winners to emerge.
Return to the Movie House home page