Good Night and Good Luck

(Click here for Internet Movie Database entry) 

        Everyone has to go out and see this movie. I mean it! Yes, it's a black and white movie about a bunch of white guys sitting around smoking and talking but Good Night and Good Luck is the most riveting film of the year. Half of the reason for this is that this is a darned good movie, and half of it is the story itself, the true story, not "inspired by actual events" but the actual events themselves in the actual words that Edward R. Murrow used. Maybe this doesn't seem like a big deal to you but this may be the shocking thing about Good Night and Good Luck. They didn't change the story for dramatic effect. And they just used the words that Murrow wrote himself. This is amazing in a era of biopics such as A Beautiful Mind where in addition to changing major events in John Nash's life, the speech Russell Crowe as Nash gives at the end accepting the Nobel Prize is not the speech that he actually gave, or in JFK where Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison gives a totally fictional closing argument in court.

        Good Night and Good Luck recounts the events in 1954 when the McCarthy hearings and the Red Scare were at their height. Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Fred Friendly (George Clooney), the producer of his news program, "See it Now" decide to take on McCarthy. Their now-famous news team included Don Hewitt (Grant Heslov) who went on to create 60 Minutes, Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr & Patricia Clarkson), Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels) who discovered Walter Cronkite, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), and Jesse Zousmer (Tate Donovan). Their boss, of course, was the legendary William Paley (Frank Langella) who became president of CBS in 1928 when it was a small radio network and built it into, well, CBS. Adding to the documentary feel of this film, Joe McCarthy appears as himself in archival footage. The events of Good Night and Good Luck (the title comes from Murrow's signature signoff) revolve around the newsroom during the months in which Murrow decides to take on and fight McCarthy.

        This film was directed by George Clooney in black and white and on a limited number of sets. So Good Night and Good Luck is not only set in 1954 but it is presented as a live TV drama would have been presented in 1954. It has a Dragnet-just-that facts-ma'am feel to it. They don't have to push the message. They just let Murrow's words do it for them. And the film is all the more powerful for that. This could have been a preachy left-wing propaganda film but that it is not, is a testament to Clooney. It is all done in very minimalist style. The cast led by David Strathairn is really great. Strathairn is an amazing actor who unfortunately is little seen on the screen. He's been around for 25 years, starting with The Return of the Secaucus 7. I have liked him ever since he was the weird boyfriend in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd in 1988. He's also been in Eight Men Out, Sneakers (my fav), A League of Their Own, and Passion Fish. In Good Night and Good Luck, Strathairn doesn't make the mistake of trying to sound like Murrow. He just becomes Murrow. Clooney does a nice job turning off "Clooney" and playing the man behind the camera, Fred Friendly. Actually during the shows, he was sitting behind Murrow on the floor giving him his cues. This was before earphones. And it's nice to see Robert Downey Jr and Jeff Daniels who have been missed. Frank Langella really knows how to fill up a screen and dominate it physically. He is a perfect choice to play the President of CBS. Clarkson is good in a pretty minor role.

        Strathairn as Murrow and all the other characters in Good Night and Good Luck smoke all the time as they did in real life. There has been a lot written recently about whether characters should smoke onscreen and whether it's a bad example. But I see Good Night and Good Luck as an anti-smoking film. Murrow died of lung cancer at age 57.

        In addition to everything else good about this movie, Good Night and Good Luck is very timely as everything in it resonates so strongly with current events. In fact, Clooney even slips in a clip of a speech by President Eisenhower where he comments on how wonderful it is to be in America where we have Habeus Corpus so people can't be thrown in jail to rot. Good Night and Good Luck is framed by a speech given by Murrow in 1958 about the state of television. This speech could be given today. Here is one paragraph: "Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER." Click here to read the whole speech.

        Good Night and Good Luck is in general release now, so it should be at a theatre near you. It may be the best movie of the year. You gotta go see it.