Good Night and Good Luck is a story of perseverance both in front of and behind the camera. George Clooney co-wrote the movie for a dollar, directed for a dollar, and played the second-biggest part for the minimum the IATSE union allows; even so, he says it was nearly impossible to raise the modest budget of $7.5 million for a black-and-white film. His passion for telling the story of the battle between straight-arrow newsman Edward R. Murrow and crusading Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy has yielded a film of uncommon relevance in our current era of the Patriot Act and the curtailing of civil liberties in the name of public safety.
It is 1953. McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt is in full swing, reputations and lives are being destroyed, and tendrils of fear and repression have reached into every aspect of public life. Murrow, played as a man of dignity by David Strathairn, grinds his teeth during an interview with flaming Liberace, who says he’s waiting to meet the right girl and settle down. A married couple in the CBS newsroom, played by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, will be fired if they admit their union. Everyone at CBS has to sign a loyalty oath or be fired. A fellow reporter, movingly played by an imploding Ray Wise, has been smeared as a Communist, and his career is going down the tubes. Murrow is quietly seething.
When a lieutenant is kicked out of the Air force for refusing to denounce his Serbian father, Murrow finally gets mad as hell and won’t take it any more. With the hard-hitting news show See It Now as his pulpit, he fires a fusillade at McCarthy. He bets everything that a newsman can trump a Senator if his moral character were unimpeachable, and if he were on the side of right. "Dissent is not disloyalty," he says in that landmark broadcast; "We are not descended from fearful men."
Elsewhere, Murrow said, "What is happening to radio and television is decadence, escapism, and insulation from the world we live in. We are fat and complacent. Whatever happens in this relationship between the individual and the state…we did it to ourselves." That the big guns of government came after him was not a surprise. Thoreau might have been talking about Murrow when he wrote, "A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men , serve the state with their consciences…and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it."
Good Night and Good Luck was shot in color and printed in black-and-white, which makes the images flat; and Clooney directs tastefully, but with a television aesthetic. The movie would have played best on TV, not least because it’s about the ruination of that medium. But since Murrow’s day, the battle for the the idiot box, the glass teat, has been lost. Clooney knows this, so he took his fight to the theaters, where the struggle to tell stories of worth despite the stranglehold of corporate greed is now being waged. Last Friday, Saw II , a hack job in every sense, played in Bloomington to packed houses, while only a handful showed up for Good Night and Good Luck . Clooney’s on our side; the very least we can do is see his movie and enter the fray.
You’ll have to hurry if you want to catch Good Night and Good Luck at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews can be found online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.