Good Night, and Good Luck: A Serious Plea for Serious Journalism

Good Night, and Good Luck: A Serious Plea for Serious Journalism

Suderman Op-Ed in AFF Brainwash
October 16, 2005

George Clooney has come a long way from being known as "that hunky doctor on E.R." Now firmly entrenched as a cornerstone of the Hollywood establishment with assurances of lifelong celebrity, Clooney has scaled the middlebrow escalator, climbing from wisecracking vampire slayer in From Dusk Till Dawn to a bevy of films that demand to be taken seriously.

For the most part, he has succeeded--both with his expertly zany turns in a string of absurdist Joel and Ethan Coen screwball comedies and with weightier fare like Three Kings and Solaris. More recently, Clooney has followed in the footsteps of Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford by moving behind the camera, and, like those performers, he brings an acute moral and political sensibility to his work.

Clooney's first directorial outing, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, about Gong Show producer and rumored CIA assassin Chuck Barris, showcased his whiz-bang technical prowess while shining a bright light on America's fascination with television, celebrity, and violence. It was an impressive debut, though much credit is due to a typically stellar performance from Sam Rockwell, a script by surrealist prodigy Charlie Kaufman, and some reported behind-the-camera coaching by Steven Soderbergh. Critics lavished praise on the film, but audiences shrugged their shoulders. The film was a box office disappointment.

Clooney, good actor that he is, accepted this amiably and adjusted his tactics. Instead of taking audience rejection as a cue to more commercial--and frivolous--work, he decided to pursue even weightier material--in black and white no less--on a much smaller scale, and thus we have his sophomore effort, Good Night, and Good Luck, which examines Edward Murrow's broadcasts on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Once again examining the confluence of mass media and political demagoguery, the movie is a solidly entertaining, technically excellent take on politics and journalism that is Clooney's most stringent plea yet for intellectual respectability.

Clocking in at barely over 90 minutes, Good Night is first and foremost a brisk, eloquent history lesson. Set almost exclusively in the self-contained world of the CBS news studios, it is the antithesis of the massive, sweeping Confessions. Scenes consist primarily of meetings amongst editorial and corporate staff, broadcast recreations, and archival footage of McCarthy. Beginning with a post-McCarthy banquet speech that frames the story and provides the requisite historical exposition, the film methodically traces the development of how Murrow (David Strathairn) and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) chose to go on the offensive against McCarthy despite the perceived danger of publicly criticizing a U.S. Senator. With no score save for an occasional jazz interlude and little in the way of dramatic outbursts, the film has the feel of a small, talky theater piece--yet this makes it no less gripping.

Lacking the aggressive visual flourish of Confessions, Good Night is nonetheless marked by a deft, confident directorial vision. Photographed in stark black and white, the film bares none of the resort-like, gaudy set decorating that droops off the rails of so many intendedly lavish period pieces. Instead, there is the sensation of looking through an album of meticulously cared-for photographs; the past seems at once eerily real and oddly fictitious.

Clooney, like many actor-directors, coaxes intense, precisely-controlled performances from each of his players. Even in small roles, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, and Robert Downey, Jr. deliver memorable portraits of constricted passion. No one, though, is more constricted than Strathairn's Murrow. With his trim, angular features, his slicked-black hair, and his meticulously pressed suits, Strathairn plays Murrow as a tightly bound reservoir of both journalistic fortitude and pragmatic reservation. What's surprising is the minimalism with which Strathairn accomplishes this--a slight turn of his head and a raised eyebrow are all he needs to capture Murrow's singular mix of determination and reticence.

That determination is typically aimed at not only exposing McCarthy but also at the wider role of journalism in public life. To no one's surprise, Good Night emanates from a distinctly liberal core, and the larger message of the film is a call for political journalism that serves not the public's wishes, but its good--no matter what the public might actually want to be watching. Murrow's opening speech decries television as having descended into "decadence, insolence, and escapism," and in a later scene he firmly states that he "cannot accept that there are two equal sides" to any news story. It's an implicit call for journalists to educate the unfortunate masses--for the public's benefit, of course.

A rich son of a well-off Kentucky journalist (whom he recently supported in a failed Congressional bid), Clooney may believe in the benevolence of sermonizing news reports, but his film's idea--that it is the job of the press to educate a simple-minded public--is little more than condescending elitism. While Good Night seems to have been intended as a battle cry for liberal journalism--which is akin to pleading for more cars in Los Angeles--it works more as an unintended exposé of the arrogance of the aloof liberal elite.

Yet, even if Clooney's liberalism blinds him to some of the film's prejudices, it in no way hinders his ability to tell a compelling story. That he has applied his considerable star power to complex, skillfully crafted films made with adults in mind is admirable. Still, it's difficult to take messages regarding the importance of high-minded media activism too seriously coming from a man who began his film career slaying vampires with a shotgun cross.