Good Night, and Good Luck ****
Directed by George Clooney. Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov. Producer, Grant Heslov. Shot (in black and white)by Robert Elswit. Cast, David Strathairn (Edward R. Murrow) George Clooney (Fred Friendly),Frank Langella (William Paley), Ray Wise (Don Hollenbeck)Robert Downey Jr. (Joe Wershba), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), Jeff Daniels (Sig Mickelson). A Warner Independent release. 83 minutes. PG
First things first. This film is the best U.S. movie of the last year. It has been nominated for the forthcoming Oscars. My guess is that the prize will go to the very good "Brokeback Mountain" but my own vote is for "Good Night, and Good Luck". It went on general release last October (to laudatory reviews) but I saw it only last week in an empty theater (save for my wife, myself and one young man.) Of course, it was a re-run. And it was also Superbowl night.
No matter, the movie certainly deserves applause. Its title comes from that great newsman Edward R. Murrow who worked for CBS and had super credentials. Among them: his famous broadcasts from London during World War II and his "See It Now" programs. Also the "Person to person" interviews of celebrities, often tongue-in-cheek. (We see a hilarious snippet about Liberace.) The film's title is Murrow's closing wish.
This movie's period covers mostly the mid-1950's, when Murrow and Joe the-extreme-rightist McCarthy (1908-1957), Wisconsin's junior senator, were embattled. To put it briefly, McCarthy had made himself the main Communist-hunter, by hook and overwhelmingly crook, within the full swing of anti-communism as the Red Scare was obsessing a large number of Americans. The U.S.A. was flooded by witch-hunting, the fear of "Pinkos","Loyalty Oaths",by "McCarthyism" and such.
The core of the picture is the Murrow-McCarthy duel, with the former superbly played by David Strathairn, and the latter present through several appearances on television, thanks to an abundance of documentary footage. And then, there is George Clooney playing--in self-effacing ways--the aptly named Fred Friendly, the producer (and friend) of Murrow's programs. Plus a small battery of CBS people impersonated in short to shorter, yet always convincing parts by excellent, mostly familiar American actors.
The period details are perfect, from clothes to a huge number of cigarette-smokers, "led" (so-to-speak) by Murrow (who eventually died of lung cancer), to a fine African-American singer who performs in the bar-plus frequented by the CBS-ers. Cleverly, the songs are not related to the movie's story. It is a detail, but one typical of the film's genuine re-creations and non-gimmickry. Or its honest avoidance of symbolisms. Or, for that matter, theatrics. It is all facts and more facts, put together in a mega-convincing way.
There are, or course, clever nuances. The overall approach is one of a "cinema verite" documentary, as, for example, the appearance of a genuinely patriotic officer who is kicked out of the army because his aged father's sympathy for the Soviets.
I expected to see a bit of the familiar footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings that led to the final destruction of the senator, but on second thought I am pleased that this near-cliche was skipped. The exception being when avuncular lawyer Joseph Welch, the Army's defender, said to McCarthy, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Or "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness."