George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. is unusual among modern films in that it has a great deal of respect for its audience. It simply presents a series of events that occurred in the 1950s involving Sen. Joseph McCarthy and CBS News, particularly the host of ‘See It Now’, Edward Murrow; it doesn’t ever become preachy, or manipulative, or attempt to guide the viewer through what is going on. It’s like it’s been brought forward from that great decade in American film, the 70s – it can be compared to All the President’s Men, because it is very much in the same class.
To begin with, this is not only a very good film, but such a good rendering of its time period to be practically an archival document. Shot by Robert Elswit in glorious black and white, everything feels as though it has been lifted straight out of the 50s. The best way to illustrate this is by observing the seamless integration of McCarthy archive footage into the film – indeed, test audiences suggested to Clooney that he should have hired a different actor to play McCarthy because of his overacting, not realising it was the man himself. Everything feels just right: immediately we are immersed in immaculate period detail, and it is no struggle to remain immersed throughout the duration of the film.
That the film is biased towards Murrow and his colleagues makes no difference to me. In fact, I prefer it that way, and not just because I agree with their strong belief in free speech and their disagreement with scare tactics by extremely powerful people. I think it makes for a more effective film, because McCarthyism is not something one reacts to with ambivalence; you have to decide which side you stand on, and the fact that Clooney wastes no time with the opposing views makes the film a lot tighter and ultimately more effective. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is that while it is a film about that period of great nationwide fear, it also directly reflects parallel events in current times. Back then, a newsman and his team were willing to stand up to a fearmonger and say “this isn’t right”, but today lies and outright ineptitude in American politics go largely unchallenged by mainstream media. It is not surprising that in Murrow’s final speech, he mentions American foreign policy in the Middle East; it is the only time in the film where Clooney explicitly offers the audience a connection, and it works very well.
In the role of Ed Murrow, David Strathairn is magnificent. He carries the film with remarkable authority and integrity; as he looks directly into the camera and speaks those immortal words of the title, we trust him, because he means it. His serious, focused remarks are balanced with some wonderful lines of sardonic wit. Only once does he show vulnerability for a moment, but he immediately picks himself up and gets on with the job again – a true professional. Equally as good is Ray Wise as the doomed colleague Don Hollenbeck: the scene in which O’Brien’s piece is read out to him is phenomenal, as he tries – but fails – to maintain a cheery demeanour. It’s surprisingly affecting. Everyone else in the cast – Clooney, Langella, Downey Jr., Clarkson, Daniels – is functional, doing the job as well as they need to without distracting from Strathairn’s great performance. I would, however, single out one scene between Downey Jr. and Clarkson as being terrifically acted, and that is just after Daniels’ character has spoken to them. We expect to see disappointment, but their tenderness towards each other is just wonderful… a superbly well-written and well-acted moment.
If anything, Good Night, and Good Luck. finishes a little too quickly. We could probably have done with another twenty minutes to convey a bit more detail, because those unfamiliar with the events going in would perhaps struggle to keep up, and anyway, I would’ve been delighted to stay in that lush black and white world a bit longer. Still, this is an absurdly early contender for the best film to be released this year. The fine acting, the wonderful pans and re-focuses, the taut directing – it’s finely honed cinema, great to watch and it makes you think.