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In the early 1950's, the threat of Communism created an air of paranoia in the United States and exploiting those fears was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. However, CBS reporter 'Edward R. Murrow (I)' and his producer Fred W. Friendly decided to take a stand and challenge McCarthy and expose him for the fear monger he was.
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Nominated for 6 OSCARS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Strathairn), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction
In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy led an unholy crusade against the possible Soviet agents in the government, recklessly accusing individuals without evidence of Communist Party membership or worse. Those who questioned his tactics would have their own patriotism questioned and could lose their livelihood. Despite this risk, respected journalist Edward R. Murrow of CBS News decided to bring down McCarthy by using his own words against him.
Directed by George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck is the story of Murrow (David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) creating an edition of See It Now, a news program, designed to challenge McCarthy directly. In addition to overcoming the paranoia exploited by McCarthy, Murrow and Friendly must fight an internal battle against CBS chairman William Paley (Frank Langella) who wants to focus the network on less expensive and less controversial entertainment programs to appease conservative advertising sponsors.
Clooney’s first success is creating a distinct mood. The film was shot in color on a greyscale, and then the black and white was brought out in post-production. Along with an attention to authenticity in the art direction, a constant cloud of cigarette smoke creates not only a sense of time and place but also a superficial cleanliness that belies murky undercurrents. Even the bouncy jazz music (performed superbly by Dianne Reeves) reinforces the patina of coolness, covering darker notes.
The film’s other triumph is its acting. Strathairn is a study in reticence as Murrow. Wordlessly, just with the tensing of the muscles in his face, Strathairn is able to convey both fear and determination. But he also subtly hints that despite McCarthy’s threats, Murrow is more fulfilled in this role as citizen-journalist. Murrow is more pained by the celebrity interviews he must conduct for the sponsors. Note the expression and tone of voice Strathairn uses when he asks Liberace about the possibility of marriage. Although barely observable, there is just the slightest alteration in his manner, registering irony, weariness and even self-contempt. To Clooney’s immense credit, he balances close ups and medium shots to extract as much nuance as possible from Strathairn’s performance. He also shoots Strathairn from low angles, so the audience is literally “looking up” at Murrow as he takes on McCarthy.
In a film filled with strong supporting performances, Langella’s William Paley stands out. When interacting with other characters, Langella uses his body language to reinforce the power dynamic. In a climactic meeting with Friendly and Murrow, Paley is relaxed, even leaning back in his chair at times, during a tense debate on the importance of the news division to CBS. Langella knows that Paley does not really need to engage because he has already made his decision. And yet Langella does not allow Paley to become a caricature of the executive solely concerned with the bottom line. He expresses his point of view rationally so that even though the audience’s sympathies are with Murrow and Friendly, we understand the business decisions that keep a television network alive.
Although the film raises issues about journalism speaking truth to power, Good Night, and Good Luck is more convincing as a critique of television news. In the confrontation between Murrow and McCarthy, the film is at times self-congratulatory. After all, McCarthy’s power was already on the wane at the time of Murrow’s broadcast. And lionizing newspeople for challenging those misusing power has become well-trod ground at the movies. The more intriguing question of making versus reporting the news is raised, but any troubling issues arising from that debate are ignored. More interestingly, Clooney raises the question of how well television news is serving the public: whether the demands of viewers for entertainment and the power of advertising dollars have debauched the medium’s ability to inform the citizenry. The blending of journalism and entertainment has proved to be a more potent enemy than the blowhard McCarthy.
Of course, blaming executives and advertisers is an easy way out for those who bemoan the decline of traditional news sources, such as television and newspapers. And to Clooney’s credit, the film places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of journalists and viewers alike. It is said that people get the government they deserve. Maybe we are getting the media we deserve as well.