Tuesday, October 25, 2005

REVIEW: Good Night And Good Luck

THIS is how you do one of these.

The story of Edward R. Murrow's confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the HUAC hearings is, whatever your opinion of the events or your personal politics overall, unquestionably the central Creation Story of the modern media. Being as it is a story which, when told as it generally has been this past half-century, is overall damaging to "conservative" politicians and empowering to "liberal" journalists; one can be forgiven for expecting politically-outspoken actor/director George Clooney to deliver a hagiographical bit of mythmaking in crafting a film about it. All he would need to do is follow the standard, simplified version of the events as they are often recounted: That Murrow and his news team were benighted, wholly-unbiased "simple newsmen" who were merely "doing they're job" when they set in motion the events that would bring down McCarthy. And he may even have made a decent film in doing so.

But instead, Clooney has chosen to go a more honest, less self-flattering and MUCH less "useful" (in the political-propaganda sense) route; and in doing so he has not made a decent film... he's made a great one.

A small, enclosed film, "Good Night and Good Luck" exists as a series of brilliant choices. David Strathairn is a note-perfect Murrow, and Clooney makes a fine foil as his producer/ally Fred Friendly. Ray Winstone, Frank Langella and others shine in supporting roles. The choice to shoot in black and white is a winner as well, so too the (aparent) decision to stage the story in the manner of a television production of the era. And then there's the masterstroke of essentially having McCarthy play himself, by limiting the "villain's" role to archival footage.

But the real note of greatness here is in what the film chooses NOT to do, namely to use the "mythic" version of the tale as a way to answer the current accusations of "liberal media bias." In fact, it rather brazenly takes the position that Murrow and his crew WERE "biased" against McCarthy, or at least his tactics, and that they DID conspire to damage the Senator and his mission. The film does, naturally, approach this truism as also be an entirely heroic act in it's own right.

This SHOULD play as more incendiary ("damn right they were biased, and good for them!") but somehow it doesn't. This is largely thanks to Strathairn's measured but commanding performance, which helps us understand the kind of trust that Murrow was able to inspire in his viewers, and also to a crackerjack screenplay which eventually leaves the questions of politics on the back-burner in favor of another purpose entirely: To hold up Murrow vs. McCarthy as an example of the power of journalism to accomplish great good or, at least, great importance; and to use this as a message from the past about the sorry state of news reporting today.

Let me be blunt about this: In my current opinion, this may well be the best film of the year. It's honest where it could've been preachy, cutting where it could've been congratulatory. It's a political film that manages not to politicize it's audience, and it deserves your attention (along with a round of Oscars come that time.)