Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Grant Heslov, Ray Wise, Alex Borstein
Written by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Directed by: George Clooney
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and brief language
Running Time: 93
Date: 08/31/2005

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Good News

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

George Clooney's second feature suddenly and surprisingly elevates him from a handsome, charming leading man to one of the most exciting and promising of American filmmakers. His two features Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and the new Good Night, and Good Luck both employ a unique visual scheme and clever performances to explore the elusive nature of truth within and surrounding the television medium.

But while Confessions was snarky fun, it doesn't take more than a cursory glance to see that Good Night, and Good Luck comes very close to something resembling a genuine work of cinema art.

On the surface, it's a real critic-pleaser. Beautifully photographed in classic black-and-white, it has a potent relevance to current events, making it the most exciting film about journalism and the media since All the President's Men (1976).

But fortunately, it delves much deeper than that. The black-and-white is put to a distinct use rather than just an aesthetic touch, and the film deftly avoids preaching and political correctness.

Set in the '50s, Good Night, and Good Luck tells the story of television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn). Like the recent Capote, the film chooses to focus on one specific event in its subject's career, rather than stumbling through a condensed Cliff's Notes version of his entire life. We never learn about Murrow's radio career, or his family or where he was born. In fact, the film never once ventures away from its artificially lit interiors. It's concerned only with Murrow's on-air battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy.

We meet Murrow as he begins working on the story of Milo Radulovich, a man who had been unceremoniously kicked out of the navy without a trial because his father and sister were associated with communists. Murrow reported -- and commented upon -- the story, and subsequently raised the ire of McCarthy and company.

Good Night, and Good Luck smartly uses footage of the real McCarthy; any actor would have gone over the top in an effort to capture his monstrous and sweaty reptilian-like essence. In contrast, Strathairn gives a tour-de-force performance, incessantly smoking and fighting with these film clips without ever dropping his famed poker face. Best of all, the film employs Murrow's actual words, and Strathairn reads each crafty turn of phrase with great intelligence and poetic punch.

In addition to his writing and directing duties, Clooney plays Murrow's producer Fred Friendly in a distinctly non-movie star role, crouched on the floor behind Murrow's desk and tapping his leg with a pencil when he's on the air. Apparently, the real Friendly was far more boisterous, and it's much to Clooney's credit that he decided to shrink the role and step out of the way.

Likewise, Clooney surrounds Strathairn with an equally hardworking and generous cast: Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Grant Heslov, Ray Wise and Alex Borstein. Unlike the subjects of many biopics, Murrow does not seem to be operating in a void. Frank Langella is especially superb as CBS station manager William Paley, lurking in his dark, wood-paneled office and worrying about too much controversy. Each actor gets a chance to shine, but without upsetting the film's delicate balance.

Clooney -- who co-wrote the film with actor Heslov -- understands that film has its own rhythms, and he casts jazz singer Dianne Reeves to help with the appropriate crescendos and silences. She appears in five interludes, providing rest breaks and resetting the tone. Clooney's masterful opening scene descends upon a fancy dress dinner, complete with champagne and photographers, but it is presented in complete silence -- save for a mournful jazz tune. Murrow's voice finally interrupts, turning the revelry into a cry for responsibility.

It would have been easy for a lesser director to turn this battle of fear vs. freedom into an exciting onscreen tête-à-tête, complete with soaring music and rousing cheers of victory, but Clooney is brave enough to end Good Night, and Good Luck on a downbeat. It was too soon to tell; did Murrow do the right thing? How do we know we're doing the right thing now?

Movies Unlimtied