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Dustin Putman

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Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by George Clooney
Cast: David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Ray Wise, Frank Langella, Tate Donovan, Tom McCarthy, Matt Ross, Reed Diamond, Robert John Burke, Grant Heslov, Alex Borstein, Rose Abdoo
2005 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 8, 2005.

As a film student at American University several years ago, one of the sections we studied in my documentary course was the media, and specifically, CBS news journalist Edward R. Murrow's role in putting a stop to Senator Joseph McCarthy's outrageous Communist witch hunts in the early-to-mid 1950s. Our assigned viewing on the topic was a television documentary called "The McCarthy Years," which painted a clear, precise and comprehensive overview of this dark period in American history. Through nothing more than stock footage of the Senate's McCarthy hearings and Murrow's scathing indictments of McCarthy's unreasonable actions on news program "See It Now," the non-fictional film was riveting enough that its impact has stuck with me ever since.

"Good Night, and Good Luck," a perfectly competent, terminally ineffective docudrama directed by George Clooney (2002's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), fictionalizes this same subject matter insomuch that actors are playing the roles, but documented transcripts appear to have been used in creating a lot of the dialogue and the film as a whole seems to stick to the cold, hard facts. This approach is admirable from an event-based point-of-view, but is decidedly uncinematic, dry, and emotionally stunted. At less than ninety minutes sans credits, the picture also frustratingly ends before it has seemingly begun. "Anticlimax" doesn't even begin to describe the final fade to black.

Set primarily over the years of 1953 and 1954, screenwriters George Clooney and Grant Heslov jump right into the thick of things as "See It Now" news anchor Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his staff put their careers on the line to run a sharply critical editorial on Joseph McCarthy's out-of-hand blacklisting of average, loyal American citizens. It's a risky move, but Murrow sees right through McCarthy's tyrannical aim—to send fear and widespread panic into the hearts of viewers over what he ridiculously alludes to being a Communist threat. As opinons become widely divided and the question arises of whether it is Murrow's place to editorialize at all—"Your job is to read the news, not make it," CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella) tells him at one point—his team's research and Murrow's journalism skills manage to open up an investigation into McCarthy's dirty doings.

Sumptuously photographed by Robert Elswit (2003's "Runaway Jury") in richly textured black-and-white, "Good Night, and Good Luck" is a well-acted, one-sided retelling of a disgraceful moment in the history of politics (even nowadays, is there any other kind?) and a major turning point in the impact of broadcast journalism on the world. As Murrow, character actor David Strathairn (2004's "Twisted") is an unlikely choice for the lead, but carries his performance off arrestingly. Strathairn doesn't look a whole lot like the real Murrow, but he manages to embody him in every other way. The writing of Edward R. Murrow is of a shakier nature. In short, he is portrayed as a flawless God-like savior, mostly unconflicted, whose entire life is devoted to righting the world's wrongs no matter the cost. Mention of a wife is passingly made, but otherwise Murrow is seen as having no life away from work—no side interests, no friends beside coworkers, no family, no hang-ups. The same goes for the rest of the CBS employees, including steadfast CBS News producer Fred Friendly (an excellent George Clooney), secretly married writer-producers Joe (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson), and CBS Director of Talks Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels), who would almost be interchangeable if not for physically looking different.

Had "Good Night, and Good Luck" been interested in showing all sides of the conflict, the film would have benefitted with a fuller depth that is absent from this interesting, but uninformative version. Using a fair amount of stock footage intercut between the actors' scenes—the same footage that was used in "The McCarthy Years"—director George Clooney has made a motion picture that those unfamiliar with the actual events will have a tough time keeping up with, and those who know the story will learn nothing new from having seen. By comparison, "The McCarthy Years" was far more developed and insightful. "Good Night, and Good Luck" is the Cliffs Notes edition, lacking any sort of background or base for how and why the blacklisting began, and what ultimately became of the real-life figures portrayed here. A postscript could have helped out this latter complaint, but as is, the film just cuts to black without warning, leaving you asking, "Is that all there is?"

Dramatically antiseptic and crushingly insular (there isn't an exterior location to be found), "Good Night, and Good Luck" is a serious effort that makes no bones about its intention to follow the facts, even at the risk of neglectfully realizing the characters and lacking a cinematic three-act structure. The results are fascinating as the film plays itself out, but thoroughly disappointing after; the ending arrives too soon and almost at random, and the treatment of McCarthyism and broadcast journalism barely scratch the surface of either topic. George Clooney is a talented filmmaker to watch and not just an actor whose fame has handed him the reigns of a movie to amateurishly make, but "Good Night, and Good Luck" isn't nearly as hard-hitting as it wants to be or as penetrating as it should.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman