Appellate Judge James A. Stewart awards George Clooney a Silver Sow for this tale of journalism against all odds. Since Clooney didn't get any of the six Oscars that his movie was nominated for, he deserves something.
Our review of Good Night, And Good Luck (HD DVD), published November 6th, 2006, is also available.
"If none of us had ever read a dangerous book, or had a friend who was different, never joined an organization that advocated change, we'd be just the kind of people that Joe McCarthy wants. We're gonna go with the story, because the terror is right here in this room."—Edward R. Murrow
This…is DVD Verdict.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Edward R. Murrow was the name that meant news. He became famous in the age before TV, with his voice reporting live news of the London Blitz back to America during World War II. The radio show he helped develop became World News Roundup, still a CBS radio staple, and generations of broadcasters looked up to him as the "patron saint of American broadcasting," as the Museum of Broadcast Communications puts it. Radio also gave Murrow his famous opening line, "This…is London," and closing line, "Good night, and good luck."
From 1951 to 1955, Murrow hosted an evening TV show called See It Now, "the most influential news program on television," according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. A forerunner of 60 Minutes, Murrow's show is most famous today for the host's showdown with Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose name is synonymous today with charges of Communism that destroyed the lives of those targeted, but weren't backed up.
Good Night, and Good Luck isn't Murrow's story, but concentrates on the events before and after the historic broadcast in which Murrow's See It Now showed clips of McCarthy in action, highlighting the senator's tactics in prime-time (the hearings he dominated had been shown live on daytime TV) and starting the chain of events that would send McCarthy to the back bench of Congress.
Story over? Not quite. As director George Clooney puts it, "They both ended up with pretty much the same fate. They didn't get fired—they got pushed to the back," Clooney said.
The man who braved the London Blitz and the anti-Communist furor of the 1950s slowly faded from TV screens, his magazine show bumped to Sunday afternoons to make room for more shows like the then-popular $64,000 Question. Murrow didn't disappear immediately from prime-time, though, since his Person to Person program of celebrity interviews lasted a couple more years.
Good Night, and Good Luck was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.
Facts of the Case
Good Night, and Good Luck opens at a banquet for broadcasters, where famed journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Straithairn, L.A. Confidential) gives a speech calling on those in his medium to commit themselves to educating the public. Would it be so hard, he asks, to pre-empt Ed Sullivan or Steve Allen once a month for some informative show on world events? Today, we know the answer: Yes, if those world events are as important as O.J. Simpson's Bronco chase.
It then flashes back to the CBS studios, where a loyalty oath is going around the newsroom. Even Edward R. Murrow has signed it. The reason is the concern over the Milo Radulovich story. The young Air Force reservist was kicked out after refusing to denounce his father, who stood accused of reading a Serbian newspaper. The Air Force wanted to control the story, and sponsor Alcoa was getting nervous about its military contracts. Despite pressure, Murrow delivers the See It Now report, expressing concerns about a son being punished for his father's alleged associations and the secrecy of Air Force procedures.
"It's just a little poke with a stick, see what happens," Murrow says.
Of course, Murrow gets accused of being a Communist, a charge that gets the reporter called into the office of CBS boss William Paley (Frank Langella, Dracula, House of D), who wants Murrow to "let it go." CBS can always report it later, when Congress catches up to McCarthy, he points out.
Meanwhile, there's illicit romance in the newsroom, thanks to the secret marriage of Shirley (Patricia Clarkson, Six Feet Under) and Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin). If they're found out, they could become former CBS journalists. "Name me another wife who reminds her husband to take off his wedding band before he goes to the office," Shirley chides her husband.
When you pop Good Night, and Good Luck into your DVD player, don't be alarmed by the black-and-white picture. That's what director George Clooney had in mind. It makes it easier to blend actual footage from the 1950s into the picture. Those rants of Joe McCarthy's are real as he accuses Murrow of being a Commie while people peer at the set in a store window. So's the footage of Liberace from an old Person to Person.
Murrow's dialogue, for the most part, is real, too. When Clooney recreates broadcasts or Murrow's famous address to fellow broadcasters, "these are exact dialogue from Murrow's transcripts," the director points out. Clooney couldn't get exact records of newsroom discussions, of course, but "all of the intent of the scenes happened."
Not that Clooney's above a little theatricality. He uses a rotating elevator, a 1950s live TV trick, several times and has jazz singer Dianne Reeves in the broadcast studio to serve as a "Greek chorus" for the action, with songs like Cole Porter's "I've Got My Eyes on You" serving as ironic commentary on the action.
Clooney himself points out that one scene, which features Murrow interviewing Gina Lollobrigida remotely on Person to Person while he keeps an eye on tapes of the day's footage of the McCarthy hearings, couldn't have happened in real life, but illustrates the tensions between news and commerce that Murrow felt. Also, he created sets for William Paley's office that made journalist Murrow look small, using perspective in an old-fashioned Orson Welles way to make his point.
It also appears that Clooney telescoped events slightly. One key scene shows the CBS news team in a bar, with the morning papers coming in at 3:30 A.M., the early editions full of news of the famous broadcast. Since Murrow's show aired at 10:30 P.M., I found myself wondering if the actual reviews might have come in a day or two later, since this was before the Internet.
David Straithairn's Edward R. Murrow is an iconic figure, usually holding one of the cigarettes that would one day send him to an early grave. He speaks with a broadcaster's resonance and shows his courage under fire through deadpan remarks ("It occurs to me that we might not get away with this one," he says of the Milo Radulovich story). The pains Straithairn takes to capture Murrow's mannerisms are clearly evident.
The "devil's advocate" here is Frank Langella as William Paley, the head of CBS. He asks tough questions of Murrow—"You're trying him in the press. Does he get the right to face his accuser?"—and demands that Murrow make sure he's got everything right. He even questions Murrow's commitment to truth, pointing out that "everybody censors" when Murrow fails to clear up false statements about Alger Hiss for fear of being seen defending a known Communist. Langella's performance makes Paley into a strong figure with his own ethical concerns rather than just a bean counter, raising the questions that push his friend Murrow to do his best.
The performances throughout—including George Clooney's own turn as Fred Friendly, Murrow's immediate superior—are delivered with an eye for historical accuracy, though I noticed a tendency in newsroom scenes for people to rush around for the sake of rushing.
Since it's a modern black-and-white film, Good Night, and Good Luck was filmed with a noirish eye, full of contrast and shadows in the background. There's grain, of course, since that actual footage is getting quite ancient, but Clooney's movie itself is sharp and clear. The picture comes through well here, as does Reeves's singing.
The commentary by Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov seems too jokey at times, but usually is informative about the production. The companion piece here includes comments from people who knew Murrow, including his son.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I didn't mind the stylized direction here, but some purists among you might prefer a stricter docudrama style over Clooney's flourishes.
The son of a former TV anchorman, George Clooney appears to share Murrow's wish that TV could become a public service medium. He's also wistful for the days when an Edward R. Murrow or a Walter Cronkite was a shaper of opinion. That love of journalism shows in his movie, occasionally with The Front Page romanticism, but ultimately produces a movie that respects and honors its subjects.
Good Night, and Good Luck adeptly preserves a slice of Cold War history. If you know Murrow only as one of Buckeye newshawk Les Nessman's heroes, if at all, you should check this one out.
Not guilty. Good night, and good luck.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director/Screenwriter George Clooney and Producer/Screenwriter Grant Heslov
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