40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Review: "Good Night, and Good Luck"

Throughout his broadcasting career, the legendary journalist and newsman Edward R. Murrow was was known for his integrity, courage and social responsibility. In his latest film, director George Clooney gives us a small slice of life at CBS news, circa 1954, as Murrow and the CBS news team prepared to take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Clooney's film isn't so much about the man (and we're not provided much in the way of autobiographical detail) but rather about the idea of responsibility and credibility, and how television has the power to not only entertain, but inform.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a labor of love from Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov. Clooney has made the wise choice of shooting in gorgeous black and white (and beautifully filmed by cinematographer Robert Elswit), which is fitting for the period the film takes place (most television programs were broadcast in black and white).

David Strathairn is Murrow, in a performance of quiet dignity and intelligence. The film opens with Murrow delivering a speech to a group of radio and television broadcasters, and the story is told in a flashback to 1954. Murrow, and his team at CBS News, have decided to run a controversial story, about how an Air Force officer was drummed out of the service due to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Senate hearings on communism. Murrow is outraged (although, as Strathairn portrays him, quietly outraged) that the Air Force officer, nor anyone else in his court martial, was allowed to see any evidence that would indicate a tie to communism. So, on his program See It Now, Murrow covers the story.

The CBS newsroom is the main point of action for the film, and it is a cramped, tight place with a lot of activity (and a lot of smoking). Murrow doesn't even have a proper set; he basically sits in a chair at a counter, with his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), literally at his side, tapping him on the leg to let him know he's on the air.

Of course, taking on McCarthy is a bold move, and doing so can result in the loss of advertisers to Murrow's show. Murrow's objectivity is questioned, but Murrow insists that the presentation of facts has nothing to do with objectivity, and he's right.

Eventually, Murrow decides to take on McCarthy directly, offering a blistering 30-minute broadcast laying out McCarthy's bullying ways, using his own words. Clooney wisely uses actual footage of McCarthy, rather than have an actor portray him, and it works wonderfully, as we get a real sense of time and place.

There is an unnecessary sub-plot involving Murrow's colleagues, Joe Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson), who are secretly married -- CBS news doesn't allow its employees to marry one another. Why Clooney included this subplot is a mystery.

Briding segments together are performances of a jazz singer (Dianne Reeves), as we watch her perform from one of the CBS studios. The songs don't really have anything to do with the action on-screen, but serve again to give us a feeling of time and place.

It's no secret that George Clooney is a liberal, and Good Night, and Good Luck is not a film that purports to be "fair and balanced." The film has a lot to say about 21st century politics and 21st century television -- how politics has become the politics of personal destruction, and how individuals use the airways (I'm sure Clooney had the right-wing pundits in mind in making this film) to attack anyone who disagrees with them. Clooney has had some well-publicized clashes with Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly, and it's hard to not see that part of Clooney's life reflected in what we see in the movie.

In the end, the film demands that news outlets, and politicians, take more responsibility for what they say and what they do, challenging notions that questioning a presidential administration is not treason, nor is it dissent. It's opinion, and people are allowed to have opinions without fear of retribution.

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