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Good Night, and Good Luck.

I try not to get too political on this blog, but it’s just that biannual season when politics seem to infect absolutely everything. So in the spirit of this Election Day, here goes.

I’m no historian, but I’ve long been of the opinion that several of the problems in American politics today can be traced directly back to the Cold War and the Communist witch hunts. That was when the words “communism” and “socialism” were stripped of all meaning and used as synonyms for “evil,” just as they are today. That was the era when America was the best country in the world, #1 at everything, and anyone who disagreed was labelled a traitor, just like now. The modern concepts of American propaganda and encouraging citizens to label each other as enemies of the state may have started with WWII, but they were perfected in the Cold War.

For further evidence of my hypothesis, just look at who’s running the country now. Look through all three branches of government today (and through most of the voting public, for that matter) and you’ll find them stuffed with people in their 40s or older, all of whom grew up with a Cold War mindset. These are people who went through school practicing to hide under their desks, thinking it would protect them from a nuclear blast. These are people who were raised on propaganda film strips telling them to beware of Communists, homosexuals, and anyone who’s the least bit different. These are people who spent a huge chunk of their lives constantly worrying that the USA and the USSR were going to launch their nukes and obliterate the human race at any moment.

As far as I can tell, there’s no other explanation for how “socialist” became a dirty word in politics today. Nobody born after the Berlin Wall’s destruction would have thought of that, you can be damn sure.

To be entirely honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if George Clooney agreed with that analysis. I realize how strange that sounds, but it’s a decent explanation for why he chose Good Night, and Good Luck — a commentary on 21st century politics by way of depicting Cold War-era events — as his sophomore directing effort.

This film tells the story of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, here immortalized by David Straitharn. More specifically, the film depicts Murrow’s famous report on Senator Joe McCarthy at the peak of his Communist witch hunt. Using excerpts from McCarthy’s own speeches and congressional hearings, Murrow and his team produced a short series of scathing reports on McCarthy’s methods and ideology. Murrow accused McCarthy of overstepping his congressional bounds and convicting citizens of treason without trial or evidence, undermining the freedom that America supposedly stands for. The report was so successful that it led directly to McCarthy’s political downfall.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men… We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Those words, spoken by Murrow and woven into the film almost verbatim, were every bit as true then as they are now. They were even more true when the film came out in 2005, midway through a presidential administration that thrived on the threat of domestic terrorism.

But there’s something else that the film focuses on, and it’s a topic that’s no less important or timely:

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

Again, that’s a direct quotation from the real Edward R. Murrow, presented word-for-word in the movie. I’m guessing that implicitly, the filmmakers intended to make a statement against Fox News’ partisan coverage, the technological gimmickry of CNN, and other tricks that are used to make the news more entertaining (see: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”). It’s a pity that such treatment of news was only a distant fantasy in Murrow’s time, because I’d be interested to hear what he’d think about that.

Then again, that second quotation makes a far more important statement: Americans have a strange kind of aversion to anything that’s challenging, difficult, or uncomfortable. Of course, that’s not to say all Americans have their brains turned off at all times; there will always be a place for intellectual discourse. However, when a program has to sell itself to the largest possible audience, that means appealing to the lowest common denominator, which means making everything all safe and familiar. Even worse than driving audience members away, there’s the possibility that a controversial story might drive away corporate sponsors or government sources. Thus we have so many harmless news stories about celebrities, whose potential outrage would affect precisely nothing.

The bottom line is that while showing Murrow’s journalistic attack against Sen. McCarthy, the film simultaneously implies that nothing like this will ever happen again. The news outlets of today will do everything possible to maintain the status quo, keep their audience happy and distracted, and keep anything potentially disturbing off the airwaves.

With respect to Murrow and his eloquent speeches, I think that Gil Scott-Heron put it best: “The revolution will not be televised.”

Pray forgive me, but I keep getting distracted. What about the film at hand? Well, to put it briefly, the film is a masterpiece.

To start with, the cast is uniformly incredible. The supporting roles are filled with such talents as Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, and of course, George Clooney. The minor roles are cast with such veteran character actors as Reed Diamond, Alex Borstein, Tate Donovan, Matt Ross, Thomas McCarthy, Ray Wise, Glenn Morshower, and countless others. But of course, the crown jewel in this cast is David Straitharn, whose remarkably charismatic performance brings Murrow back to life with aplomb.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that there isn’t a single bad actor in the cast. Though of course, it also helps that George Clooney and Grant Heslov provided a whip-smart script to work with.

The sound design deserves a lot of praise as well. Specifically, the film tends to mute itself in some very creative and powerful places. For example, no less than twice in the film, we don’t get to hear anyone applaud at the end of Murrow’s speeches. Without the emotional release that comes with applause, the speeches take on a lot more heft. It creates a feeling of foreboding, as if the speech isn’t an end in itself, but possibly the beginning of something else.

Additionally, the film provides a few musical breaks, with an anonymous jazz singer (played by Diana Reeves) singing period songs backed by a jazz band. It’s tempting to call these breaks distracting, as the jazz band gets an awful lot of screen time and absolutely zero relevance to the plot. That said, it does work in context. After all, the film does take place in a broadcasting studio. Additionally, the music provides a nice bit of much-needed levity and adds a lot to the period setting.

And oh, the period setting in this film looks amazing. The costumes look great, the sets look great, and the use of authentic newsreel footage is sublime. Best of all, I love the film’s black-and-white presentation. It creates a gritty sort of feel that neatly lends itself to a feeling of nostalgia, especially when the rooms fill up with cigarette smoke. Even better, the film’s various shades of grey are all beautifully sharp, and the greyscale does a lot to help the actors look like they really belong in the 1950s.

Moreover, I like to think that the monochrome has a deeper thematic purpose as well. Perhaps by shooting the entire film as it might appear on a 1950s television screen, it carries the implicit message that these characters are completely immersed in the world of television. On or off the camera, this is all they do. There’s also the fact that much like the visuals, the film’s morals are completely black and white.

If I have one minor complaint about this film, it’s that the movie seems very single-minded about its subject matter. Nobody seems interested in the reasons behind McCarthy’s actions, nor does anyone suggest that perhaps the ends do justify the means. Regarding mass media, the movie offers no indication about the significance of art and entertainment. Nobody raises the point that fiction can ask deep, compelling, vital questions in ways that non-fiction never could. Nobody tries to think of a compromise between news and entertainment.

There are a lot of grey areas in the themes this movie explores, but the filmmakers refuse to address them. McCarthy is wrong, Murrow is right, and that’s that. News is something vital and intellectually nourishing, entertainment is the opiate of the brainless masses, and never the two shall meet.

However, the movie does raise another interesting point. Early on, Murrow contests the notion that there are two sides to every story. He argues that not every charge has a valid rebuttal, and maybe he’s right. Maybe McCarthy’s actions were completely and totally indefensible, and the movie was smart not to pretend otherwise. It’s a very real possibility, and I’d be intrigued to learn more about it.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a remarkable film. The direction is superb, the script is fantastic, the visuals are gorgeous, the performances are extraordinary across the board, and the film’s themes are still painfully relevant. Definitely one to check out.

Happy Election Day, dear readers, and God help us all.

2 Comments

  1. Ping from I just belched:

    The Peter Sellers movie “Being There” is a lighter take on the insipidness of tv. You might enjoy it.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    I checked the IMDB page and it does indeed look interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

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