Monday, August 28, 2006

Movie Review: Good Night, And Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck is about the broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, and his exposure of the excesses of Joseph McCarthy, and his fight against Communism. (The movie gets its name from the tagline Murrow used to close every show.)

If you’re not familiar with Senator McCarthy—or have heard the name but don’t know what it’s all about—here’s a very brief synopsis: McCarthy was an ardent anti-Communist. He was convinced that Communism was running rampant in America, and, specifically, that Communists had infiltrated all levels of the American government. McCarthy believed that America was becoming weak, and he believed that it was because the Communists were bringing America down from within. Here is an excerpt from an article in The Nation, in which Jonathan Schell gives some background:

Perhaps a clue can be found in the famous speech that Senator Joseph McCarthy gave in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950. This was the occasion on which he announced his specious list of Communists in the State Department, launching what soon was called McCarthyism. He also shared some thoughts on America’s place in the world. The allied victory in World War II had occurred only five years before. No nation approached the United States in wealth, power or global influence. Yet McCarthy’s words were a dirge for lost American greatness. He said, “At war’s end we were physically the strongest nation on earth and, at least potentially, the most powerful intellectually and morally. Ours could have been the honor of being a beacon in the desert of destruction, a shining living proof that civilization was not yet ready to destroy itself. Unfortunately, we have failed miserably and tragically to arise to the opportunity.” On the contrary, McCarthy strikingly added, “we find ourselves in a position of impotency.”

By what actions had the United States thrown away greatness? McCarthy blamed not mighty forces without but traitors within, to whom he assigned an almost magical power to sap the strength of the country. America’s putative decline occurred “not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation.” And, he raved on in a later speech, “we believe that men high in this Government are concerting to deliver us to disaster. This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.”

(The article isn’t about McCarthy or McCarthyism, but I thought this passage was relevant.)

McCarthy’s solution to the problem was to hold government hearings on “un-American activities”, in which he “exposed” people he thought were Communists. In addition to rooting out Communism in government, McCarthy also “exposed” many in Hollywood and the entertainment industry as Communists. Unfortunately, McCarthy often accused people of Communism with little or no evidence, and when people were exposed, it stuck. Many people had reputations and careers ruined, because of McCarthy’s baseless accusations. (There is a very poignant example of this type of baseless accusation in the film.)

Because of his ardent, and excessive, personal quest to expose communism and communists in the United States in the 50s, the very name “McCarthy” has become synonymous with modern-day witch hunts, so I suppose Clooney thought it was appropriate to reexamine this time in America’s history, now that so many are bringing the search for terrorists to McCarthy-ist levels.

I say “Clooney thought it was appropriate”, because, in addition to starring in the movie (although not in the main role), Clooney also directed, and, I think, was one of the main drivers behind the movie. And, in my opinion, he did a fine job. The movie is filmed in black and white, and it was done that way for a reason: There is no actor, in the movie, playing McCarthy. Any time McCarthy appears, it is only in footage of the real McCarthy, from the original hearings. (As well as the actual footage from Murrow’s show, when McCarthy came on to defend himself against Murrow’s accusations.)

In addition to the practical reasons, however, shooting the film in black and white gave it a real beauty. Cinematically, the movie is excellent. Whoever did the camera work did an excellent job.

I did have a couple of problems with the movie, but they were minor. There were a couple of aspects of the story that felt a bit unresolved; if I were to guess, I would say that the movie had to be edited down, for time, and the resolution of those plot points ended up on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, the net result is that those parts of the plot don’t end up adding anything to the movie, and simply form a distraction from the main story.

Good Night, And Good Luck is a great movie, and I recommend it. I don’t think it did well at the box office, unfortunately, but it did get great reviews. (I’m not overly familiar with the Rotten Tomatoes site, but if I’m reading it correctly, the movie got good reviews both from critics and from Users.)