Good Night, and Good Luck
I grew up in the fifties, a far different time from now. Families would gather each evening around the black and white television, usually a small screen set in a large wooden cabinet. Before the night’s entertainment started we watched the news. Back then news anchors where not entertainers, they were men who spoke with authority, men the nation respected. Such men as Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley and at the top of the television journalist, Edward R. Morrow reported the news each evening in sober, serious tones. It was extremely fortunate that we had men of such integrity as Morrow during these years; it was also the time of McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the republican senator from Wisconsin. In the early fifties he started a campaign against supposed communist he claimed where in the State department. He began a witch hunt targeted at people believed to be affiliated in some fashion to the communist party. This fan the flames of fear on this nation, people distrusted their neighbors, the government and army where under suspicion. The cold war was growing. People where afraid of a nuclear attack by the Russians. I remember have to participate in drills in school, hiding under a plywood desk in case the H-Bomb was dropped. Instead of evidence McCarthy had rumors and innuendo. In 1954 clips of McCarthy were featured on the CBS documentary series, ‘See It Now’ hosted by Morrow (David Strathairn). Three weeks after the original show McCarthy appeared on the show and used it as a platform to attack Morrow himself. This ploy had worked with another CBS newsman, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) but taking on a giant of journalism like Morrow was a big mistake for the cocky McCarthy.
Morrow initially found himself being pressured to clear his name. His boss, William Paley (Frank Langella), wanted to give the American people entertainment not more controversy. While he had never interfered with what Morrow said on his programs he had some trepidation in how this would play out. Throughout it all Morrow had one steadfast ally, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), his producer and long time friend. Morrow and Friendly rally the troops in the CBS new room including Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), who had to keep their marriage secret because of network regulations. Unlike so many of the victims of McCarthyism Morrow takes the bull by the horn and publicly renounces the false charges. McCarthy is offered air time to defend his position but instead falls back to his standard ploy of vague slander and empty rhetoric. There is one thing to remember about Morrow, he did not back down. McCarthy came off badly during the appearance. People where used to trusting Morrow and this respect was not easily shaken when McCarthy took him on face to face. This was the beginning of the end for Joseph McCarthy.
It is rare that a film of social and political importance can also be entertaining. What that occurs it is powerful, this is such a film. There is a saying that those who refuse to learn history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. While many may feel that the rampant fear associated with McCarthyism could never happen again, they are wrong. People most likely said the same thing after the infamous Salem Witch trials. This film points out just how dangerous it is when a member of the government states they have facts, fan the public to action and finally are uncovered as having no real facts, just misinformation. What makes this film so urgent is the way television news is now shown. There is more entertainment and sound bites than actual in depth news and investigation. When a man like Morrow appeared in our homes we believed him, he was a man of integrity and we all knew he stood behind what he said.
David Strathairn embodies the spirit of the great Edward R. Morrow. He captures the look, movement and innate power of the man. With his ever present cigarette he was know but almost every American of the time. Strathairn does not try to do an impersonation of Morrow, which would be a deadly mistake. Instead he brings to the screen the essence of the man. There is a cool, collected assurance presented here of a man who knew he had the moral imperative to bring the truth to the light of day. Frank Langella is excellent as the boss of CBS news division. He plays William Paley as a man caught between his responsibilities to his sponsors and station owners and those dedicated people that worked for him. Most director/writers would be prone to cast themselves in the lead of one of their productions. To his credit George Clooney was able to avoid this trap taking the lesser yet pivotal role of producer Fred Friendly. He is excellent in this role; it nails the turmoil this man went through with his friend. His acting prowess has certainly grown from his days in ‘The Facts of Life’ and ‘Return of the Killer Tomatoes’. Clooney is as solid here ahs he has ever been. The role of Joe McCarthy is played by the senator himself. Vintage newsreel footage was incorporated into the film instead of having an actor portray him. Clooney, a well know jokester once stated that he was tempted to take out a full page ad in the trade magazines pushing McCarthy's performance for an Oscar.
This was Clooney’s sophomore film as the director. In today’s high tech oriented world he took a bold chance by filming this in Black and White. It worked. The film has the feel of those golden early days of television. After producing the live television film ‘Fail Safe’ in 2000 Clooney has learned how to get the most out of Black and White. His use of shadow and light is pure genius. Although filmed in 1.85:1 the film gives a claustrophobic feel of a television new studio. The pacing of the film demonstrates an economy not often seen in films today. With a run time of only 93 minutes there is no a single wasted frame. This film was made for about $7 million, nothing by modern standards. It just goes to show you that you don’t need a huge budget to create a masterpiece. Clooney also knew his subject matter well. His father, Nick Clooney was a television newsman during that period and George grew up around such people as he shows here. He does not concentrate so much on the personalities of the characters that is provided by the actors. His script is concerned with the morality play that unfolded before and behind the cameras.
Warner Brothers provided this film with the DVD treatment it so richly deserved. The non-anamorphic video is crisp and clear. The contrast is excellent. According to the commentary track on the released version Clooney specifically chose to use long non-anamorphic lenses and shoot in black and white. He wanted to recreated the look and feel of the time as well as incorporate footage shot back then. The Dolby 5.1 audio under utilizes the rear speaker and sub woofer most of the time but it does provide a full audio spectrum. the music sets the stage nicely, bringing you back to this time long ago. This is no surprise considering Clooney's aunt Rosemary was one of the great singers of the time.This disc has one of the better audio commentary tracks I have heard in a long time. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov muse over the times, events and what it took to bring this story to the screen. A little bit of advice to the parents out there that will buy this film. Watch it with your children and after the film talk to them about these times, about what happened then. Have them check the newspapers, it could happen again. This film will not only entertain it will enlighten.