After Confessions of a Dangerous Mind‘s flippantly flashy depiction of the 1970’s TV-Entertainment culture, the magnificent stateliness of George Clooney’s media-infatuated sophomore directorial effort, Good Night, and Good Luck, comes as quite a pleasant surprise. Gone are the blooming camera tricks, the flash-pans and sizzling edits, the razzle-dazzle gimmickry used to enliven the tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery of his debut’s conspiracy theory twaddle; in their place, a distinguished restraint and incisive attention to character and period detail have assumed the spotlight. Wasting not a single breath on the shallow superfluities or shoe-horned flights of fancy that characterized the actor/director’s prior effort, the film takes a graceful but workmanlike approach to its subject of 1950’s network news, reflecting a reverence for facts, for nose-to-the-grindstone labor, and for courageous forthrightness. It’s not simply that Clooney has shifted his filmmaking attention toward more serious matters, substituting Chuck Barris’s outlandish faux-life story for that of legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation of Joseph McCarthy’s underhanded tactics against alleged communists on his See it Now program. Rather, it’s that the filmmaker has undergone, for the better, a complete aesthetic about-face.
Shot by Robert Elswit, Good Night, and Good Luck‘s crisp, silvery monochromatic cinematography creates a palpable sense of ‘50s-era time and place. Yet just as importantly, this slatey palette—not unlike the sultry jazz songs by Diane Reeves which periodically interrupt the action—stands as a comment on McCarthy’s black-and-white witch hunt against supposed Reds as well as Murrow’s unyielding stance against the Wisconsin senator’s blindly intolerant crusade. Drenched in overpowering bright lights, dim shadows, and myriad shades in between, the film seeks visual and thematic harmony in every gorgeously composed close-up and gliding reverse zoom, its elegant grayish appearance ironically mocking McCarthy’s bullying overconfidence while also bolstering the sense of nobility that characterized its broadcaster protagonist Murrow (David Strathairn). These subdued hues are, in a sense, merely technically expedient, allowing Clooney to present McCarthy via archival newsreel footage that, better than any actor might, ably captures the villain’s weaselly arrogance. But they also get at something deeper, a murkiness that speaks to this real-life tale’s central conflicts between truth and deceit, facts and hearsay, image and reality; the strain of these clashes can be seen in the various portraits (on set, in video monitors, alone in an empty room) of a smoking Murrow’s weary, exhausted countenance.
The film’s bedrock is Strathairn’s performance, a masterpiece of calibrated dignity and self-doubt so potent that the absence of glimpses into the iconic journalist’s private life becomes unimportant. Clooney’s film, confined to a small series of indoor locales (the CBS studio sets, a bar, a convention hall), has a claustrophobia that heightens the story’s climate of repressive fear and intimidation, and the tight shots of Strathairn’s rigid, somewhat-lined visage, his eyes trembling with both conviction and fear, similarly seem to be squeezing the man to the breaking point. Moving little within Clooney’s frame and allowing his piercing glance to occasionally falter in moments of introspective repose, Strathairn plays Murrow as not simply a person but as a force, a presence, of righteous indignation in a world of comforting lies and half-truths. And thus when the hustle and bustle of the newsroom is juxtaposed with a measured pull-back shot of Murrow working at a typewriter in an empty room, his face and hands moving with the efficient rata-tat-tat of a man focused on the work at hand, both director and actor get at the essence of the character’s calm, quiet assurance and clarity amid the era’s political hysteria.
The dichotomy between Murrow and McCarthy is emblematic of Good Night, and Good Luck‘s fixation on contrast, which manifests itself not only in See it Now‘s ethical condemnation of the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s insidious leader, but also in the film’s view of an American culture naively willing to take everything at face value. In an exquisite sequence that highlights the disparity between what’s seen and what is, Clooney presents an authentic commercial for Kent cigarettes in which the patronizing spokesman compliments the audience’s intelligence for not being easily swayed by consumer marketing, and then asks them to buy—hook line and sinker—the company’s (thoroughly preposterous) claim about Kent smokes’ healthiness. Immediately after this found-artifact advertisement, Murrow’s hilarious interview with Liberace finds the queer pianoman discussing his hopes and dreams for marriage (and his interest in Princess Margaret!), a similar instance of deliberate image-manipulation in which messy, unfavorable realities are glossed up with phony facades in an effort to coddle and hoodwink a public still under the false impression that politicians, presidents, and TV personalities are always operating on the level.
Though never overstepping the story’s period-specific confines, the film’s contemporary allusions are nonetheless there for those who would seek them: McCarthy’s uncompromising view of good and evil (and slandering of anyone who opposed his cause, including the ACLU) is meant to recall George W.‘s post-9/11 “You’re either with us or against us” declaration and the payback-motivated leaking of Valerie Plame’s covert C.I.A. status; his dogged refusal to supply evidence against accused communists, instead preferring to try suspects on speculation and hearsay, is intended to evoke the current brouhaha surrounding prisoner rights at Guantanamo; and his justification that “security risks” necessitate the bending of constitutional freedoms is expected to parallel similar rationalizations for the Patriot Act. “We cannot defend freedom abroad if we desert it at home,” Murrow states during his historic nightly news attack on McCarthy’s slash-and-burn approach to weeding out potential socialist sympathizers, a famous proclamation that—along with Murrow’s similar belief that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”—is meant to reverberate as a censure of the current administration’s preferred tactics in selling and orchestrating the War on Terror.
Yet more forceful than its digs at the Bushies is Good Night, and Good Luck‘s eloquent articulation of television news’s duty to challenge the powers-that-be, and the erosion of modern broadcasting’s adherence to this responsibility in the face of profit-prompted corporate interference and exaltation of infotainment fluff—the latter of which is Murrow’s focus during a 1958 honorary ceremony speech that serves as the narrative’s frame. As Murrow’s employer William Paley, a superbly conflicted Frank Langella elicits both empathy and condemnation, exhibiting loyalty to the news division’s demand for independence while simultaneously becoming increasingly concerned for his network’s financial health should Murrow alienate one too many lucrative sponsors. In the film’s magnificent finale, Paley and Murrow stare each other down over the lengths to which the media are (and should be) truly autonomous truth-seekers, and the brilliance of Clooney’s (and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov’s) explosively tense presentation of this face-off is that, though the film’s sympathies staunchly lie with Murrow, Paley comes across not solely as a money-hungry scoundrel, but as a resolute pragmatist who believes that facts, even in the hands of an esteemed anchorman, are always subject to biased interpretation and manipulation.
Langella’s regally imposing, love-him-and-hate-him performance is denotative of the entire cast, which also offers superb turns by Robert Downey Jr. as Joe Wershba, Patricia Clarkson as his co-worker wife Shirley, and Clooney himself, in a decidedly unglamorous role, as loyal Murrow producer Fred Friendly. Though these peripheral players get scant screen time, the filmmakers make sure it’s time productively spent, whether by off-handedly noting that Friendly is a Jew who enjoys celebrating Christmas (thus marking him as a symbolic example of Murrow’s all-inclusive vision of America) or by refusing to shy away from the ever-present sexist inequality of the 50s through two scenes (one in a bar, the other in an office) in which Clarkson’s Shirley is casually asked to assume a subservient role in the “man’s man” world of journalism. And in a brief but bravura evocation of the collateral damage wrought by McCarthy and his slandering cronies’ unjust persecution, Ray Wise, as suicidal CBS radio reporter Don Hollenbeck, becomes—via trembling lip, empty eyes, and a heartbreaking smile tinged with hopelessness—the grief-stricken face of all those destroyed by McCarthy’s innuendo-fueled agenda.