George Clooney has done and become so many different things since he first took his rightful place among the stars when he played the brooding, sexy doctor on NBC’s “ER.”
He became, against the odds, a successful movie star, playing muse to great directors like Joel Coen, David O’Russell and Steven Soderbergh. He opposed the assault by the paparazzi after Lady Diana was killed in a pursuit, and he took on Bill O’Reilly, who attacked him and the Red Cross after 9/11, claiming the donations never got to the intended. But it is with his latest film, Good Night, And Good Luck that Clooney proves he is as good, if not better, behind the camera than in front of it.
Co-written with Grant Henslov, Good Night, And Good Luck isn’t so much literal, historical retelling of television anchorman Edward R. Murrow’s on-air debate with “junior senator” Joseph McCarthy as it is a cautionary tale of what can happen to a free country in the grip of fear and paranoia.
The film centers around Murrow (David Strathairn, who never falters) who takes to the airwaves at the moment McCarthy is having his way with the unsuspecting public – it’s a time where no one dare speak out for fear of reprisal. Though the film takes us back to the late ‘50s, there isn’t a moment in it that doesn’t feel like today, even if so much has changed.
All the while, Clooney reminds us what television was really made for back then – to sell us stuff we don’t need. He even shows Murrow doing his most popular segments, one with Liberace talking about when he would get married, if he’s found his sweetheart yet.
Like Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, Clooney’s film delves into the innocent beginnings of television – when it was okay to lie on quiz shows, as long as it delivered the ratings for the advertisers – and, okay, even encouraged, to avoid the hard-hitting news in favor of playing with chimps, or interviewing movie stars.
Using some archival footage of the senate hearings and lovely black and white film, Clooney has recreated a time that doesn’t look warm and inviting so much as it looks harsh and enclosed, giving the appearance of rats trapped in a cage, with no natural light bleeding through. This is a world enclosed, like television itself.
The film takes its time through the conversations – perhaps because the director also co-wrote it, he isn’t letting one word slip away. And the actors are filmed mostly in close-up, their lined faces catching the harsh light of the day. It is all shadows and light, playing across profiles – evidence of a black and white world where you’re either with us or against us.
An actor’s director, Clooney brings out the best in his cast — Strathairn is captivating as Murrow, doing everything with his eyes and voice – it is impossible to take your eyes off of him. As the network boss, Frank Langella is the best he’s been in years – playing not a bad man, just a businessman. The supporting players are all good, from Clooney as Fred Friendly, to Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as a married couple having to pretend they weren’t married because it was against corporate policy at CBS back then.
Clooney bookends the film with Murrow’s memorable speech about the future of television to the Radio Television News Directors Association in October of 1958, where he said, famously and eloquently, of television, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
Good Night, And Good Luck is a movie built on passionate ideas – with good actors who don’t step out of the decade, not even for a second. It is hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Clooney has – he came from television and wants us to know he cares where it goes from here.