Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review - Good Night, and Good Luck

"We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember we are not descendant from fearful men. Not from men who dared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular".

The above comes from a speech by Edward R. Murrow, the popular and revered anchor of CBS news show See It Now. This programme was broadcast in the 1950‘s, but at first glance one could be forgiven for thinking these words were uttered yesterday, such is their relevance to the current political climate in the United States. George Clooney clearly hopes that Good Night, and Good Luck will strike a chord in modern America. His second film as a director is a nostalgic look at a time when a small group of men stood up against the actions of their own government, and it also acts as a call for more responsible and challenging reportage from the current news media.

Good Night, and Good Luck focuses on the actions of Murrow (played brilliantly by David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) who, along with a number of co-workers, devoted an episode of See it Now to questioning the actions of senator Joseph McCarthy. In the early 1950’s, McCarthy’s communist ‘witch hunts’ were causing fear and suspicion to sweep across the United States; with people being accused of having communist ties without any hard evidence, and nobody daring to criticise McCarthy’s methods for fear of being incriminated themselves.

In 1953 See it Now broadcast a piece on a navy pilot named Milo Radulovich, who had been discharged without trial after being labelled a security risk. There was pressure from the military to drop the segment but CBS aired it anyway; and after McCarthy responded with his usual tactic - accusations of communist links against Murrow - the anchor and his producer decided to go after the senator himself. On March 9th 1954, See it Now broadcast a programme in which they revealed McCarthy to be a liar and bully who habitually used underhand tactics, and they did this entirely by using footage of McCarthy. They let him hang himself with his own words.

Both of Clooney’s features as a director have underlined his fascination with television and its relationship to America’s political agenda, but Good Night, and Good Luck couldn’t be more different in style to his debut. Where Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was bright, amusing and full of directorial tricks; his second film is a far more modest and austere affair. Shooting in stark black and white, Clooney delivers a convincing recreation of the CBS newsroom and surrounding offices where almost all of the action takes place. His approach here is understated and almost stiflingly dry. The film is made up of simple compositions and long, slow takes; so much so that when Clooney does throw in an extra flourish - such as his habit of letting the sound of one scene run over another, or the intermittent appearances of an unnamed Jazz singer (Dianne Reeves) - it feels out of place and has the effect of breaking the developing mood.

For the most part, Clooney’s film is fastidiously focused on a specific place and time; which is in many ways its biggest flaw. Despite the commendable verisimilitude of his film, the decision to set his film almost entirely within the offices of CBS gives it a claustrophobic feel. That’s not particularly a bad thing in itself, but the underpowered script (by Clooney and producer Grant Heslov) doesn’t give us the full context of the times the film is depicting. We never really get a sense of the fear and paranoia which the McCarthy trials had instilled in America at that point in time. There’s a subplot involving the characters played by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson hiding their relationship at work, which is presumably meant to act as a metaphor for the prevailing atmosphere, but it fails to convince.

Clooney also neglects to mention the fact that McCarthy, though undeniably wrongheaded and misguided in his methods, was actually correct in his basic assertion that there were a number of card-carrying Communists in America. Of course, this is not really the point his film is trying to make, nor was it the main reason Murrow and co. went after McCarthy; but it’s another example of Good Night, and Good Luck’s tendency to offer a highly simplistic view of history which leaves it lacking in substance. Even at ninety-odd minutes the film feels stretched and many of the scenes not directly associated with the Murrow broadcasts feel like filler material.

At its centre, Good Night, and Good Luck benefits from a spellbinding performance from David Strathairn as Ed Murrow himself. The long-underrated Strathairn gives a wonderfully subtle and controlled display as Murrow. He perfectly captures Murrow’s trademark poise and the measured cadences of his sentences; and he expresses the inner torment of a man who knows what he’s about to do may cost him dearly, but he’s determined to do it anyway. It’s fortunate for the film that Strathairn is so good because nobody else in the cast is given anything to work with.

Aside from the roles played by Strathairn and Clooney himself, there is a serious lack of depth afforded to the supporting characters. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, two actors capable of brilliance, are left standing awkwardly in the background with only a half-hearted subplot to occupy them. Jeff Daniels is similarly underemployed, and when he re-appeared late in the film I had to remind myself what exactly his role was, having completely forgotten where he first turned up. Ray Wise brings a note of pathos to his small part, but the only member of the supporting cast who really makes an impact is Frank Langella, who adds depth and a touch of Machiavellian ambiguity to his role as CBS chief William Paley.

In fact one of Clooney’s best casting decisions proves to be in his use of archival footage. The role of senator Joe McCarthy goes to Joe McCarthy himself, as the senator’s only appearance in Good Night, Good Luck is through footage of his See it Now recording or his senate hearings. It’s a smart move, like Murrow himself, Clooney lets the sweaty, ranting McCarthy hang himself with his own words.

On balance, I liked Good Night, and Good Luck despite its many flaws. It’s a noble and intelligent effort, and Clooney has again shown that he has considerable skills as a director. The film also contains a wonderful performance from David Strathairn at its core which is fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. However, I’m baffled by the overwhelming praise and numerous awards the film has collected thus far, as it is little more than a solid and workmanlike piece of filmmaking. Clooney has put together a classy, authentic production, but he lacks the insight and maturity to really take us into the complex era of McCarthyism; and to show that the Red Scare was much more than a black-and-white issue.