Good Night, and Good Luck looks at America in the early fifties, when Senator Joe McCarthy was chairing the anti-Communist witch-hunts. It was a period which affected the Hollywood community deeply, with many filmmakers blacklisted while others named names; and it had so much to say about integrity, freedom, nationwide paranoia and other noir-friendly themes. This new movie, directed by George Clooney and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, dramatizes CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s crusade to bring down McCarthy. This film and Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (about oil scandals), in which Clooney stars, represent a very potent one-two of political comment within mainstream filmmaking from that most old-fashioned and charming of contemporary Hollywood stars. Good Night, and Good Luck. is a testament to what can be done on a relatively low budget, and is up for six Oscars, including Best Picture.
Ed Murrow is a terrific part, and it’s great to see such a chance go to David Strathairn, who has long been one of the best, and warmest, actors around – as shown by his performances in John Sayles films such as Limbo and in more mainstream work like Sneakers. In Good Night, and Good Luck he is centre-stage, treated to close-up after close-up, and he seems to have absorbed the mannerisms not just of Murrow but of a whole breed of ’50s man: handsome, rigorous, and self-obsessed. It’s not clear whether he is sometimes concentrating a little too hard on the Murrow impression or whether it’s just very good acting of Murrow’s own concentration. And it might have been nice to see Murrow’s off-camera demeanour distinguished more sharply from his televised work.
But this film is set, distinctively, almost wholly within the world of work – like last year’s Million Dollar Baby, it depicts monumental and nationally news-worthy events without ever expanding its reach to cover the world beyond its immediate chamber. Good Night, and Good Luck is unavoidably a small film, but on its own terms, it excels: it’s been a long time since black-and-white photography has looked so ravishing, or so comfortable, on the big screen (Robert Elswit is the cinematographer). It’s just that its smallness rather hampers generic considerations and historical scope. The film is blindingly obvious: it is very much a genre piece, its framing device feels like it flew in on auto-pilot, and at times it’s almost a parody of a good film – the framing is perhaps too exact, the black and white too beautiful, the jazz too smoky. And while the tragedy of one supporting character can be seen coming a mile off, the movie lacks a climactic flourish. It would have been okay if the movie had been wanting to convey the untidiness of the McCarthy hunts and the sense of unease which remained in Hollywood (check out the mixed reactions to Elia Kazan’s 1998 honorary Oscar), but considering that it bases its dramatics on a series of showdowns, both on and off the air, one is perhaps waiting for a drawing-together of cinematic rhythms.
And for a film made in such controlled conditions, it’s a little surprising that the rest of the performances are not finer. As Fred Friendly, editor of Murrow’s show, Clooney’s appearance in the film feels more like an emblem (to honour his own journalist father) than a proper performance. Commendably, he works hard to appear one of the ensemble, but he is the only one of the principals who doesn’t feel in-period. Frank Langella, meanwhile, although a hugely likeable actor, doesn’t quite do justice to the role of William Paley, the man in charge. Despite his age and experience, Langella, in this part, somewhat lacks the authority the role calls for – authority which Ned Beatty displayed in his thirties when, acting beyond his years, he played top dog in Network. Having said that, Langella’s scenes with Strathairn and Clooney do capture the nuances of office politics and the machinations of the hierarchy game – and this is a tribute not just to the writing and directing but to the subtlety, and timing, in the performances.
The Best Picture category at the Oscars this year is notable for concentrating on films which have not exactly made a lot of money but which all tackle thorny political issues of the day. Brokeback Mountain represents the equality and tolerance debates surrounding gay love, Crash concerns itself with racism, Capote takes in capital punishment and the responsibility of the writer figure, and Munich has something to say – though I’d love someone to tell me what exactly – about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Good Night, and Good Luck is perhaps the most explicitly and honestly political of the five: Murrow’s addresses to camera not only remind us of his achievement against McCarthy and his place in history, but, through David Strathairn’s beautiful recreations, allow him to speak to us afresh – or, rather, they allow Clooney to speak to us, using Murrow as a mouthpiece. Whatever the limits of Good Night, and Good Luck, we do come away with those powerful speeches still ringing in our ears, and Clooney’s clear directing allows their meaning to shine across the decades and right into the present day.
Plus: Silent Britain (Produced by David Thompson for BBC4 and BFI. Presented by Matthew Sweet. Released by BFI Video) Silent Britain has a very clear mission: to rectify the critical injustice hitherto suffered by British silent cinema, so far kept in the dark and derided by critics as irrelevant. Not so, insists boyish-faced presenter Matthew Sweet who is convinced that during the period up to the 1930s British silent cinema was (almost) as good as to what UFA was producing in Germany. Erm… maybe. Despite the sulky patriotism and the slightly patronising BBC tone of this film that sometimes addresses the audience as if we didn’t even know what cinema is, Silent Britain is crammed with clips of rare films and early British stars we never heard of (Ivor Novello, Betty Balfour and the glam couple Henry Edwards and Chrissie White). The reason for that is simple: besides the critical indifference and historical exclusion, of the thousands of films made in Britain before the emergence of sound in 1929, only a fifth survive. But those films were very popular in their time. For instance, The Battle of The Somme released in 1916 was watched by an estimated 20 million people. Yes, Britain was alive with film theatres showing national productions until Hollywood started forcing its blind block booking scheme on theatre owners. Despite its presentation shortcomings, Silent Britain is like a book we buy on the strength of the pictures it contains.
Good Night, and Good Luck is out on DVD in the UK on Monday 26/06/06. The DVD includes a making-of documentary including interviews with George Clooney and the cast. Silent Britian is out now. Please follow the links if you would like to purchase a copy of the DVDs reviewed here.