Friday, 20 March 2009

good night and good luck

This is a film that looks dated but whose themes are right up to date. Directed by George Clooney, the story follows the conflict between television journalist Edward Murrow of CBS and Senator Joseph McCarthy as he pursues his crusade against communism in the 1950s. The cast is excellent and features Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn as Murrow and Jo McCarthy as himself!

The period feel is effectively created by showing the film in black and white (it was filmed on colour stock), a device that allows Clooney to insert original footage from the time including coverage of senate committee hearings. The chain smoking by just about every character is quite a jolt given that hardly anyone is filmed smoking these days and the rule at CBS banning married couples working together seems absurd.

It is the underlying themes of the film that resonate with today. The plot focuses on McCarthy’s pursuit of anyone suspected of being a communist or having communist sympathies. Those who oppose McCarthy become a target with the effect of stifling political debate. Fear of the enemy is used to justify the erosion of civil liberties including the right of free association and the expression of ideas. Those who refuse to go along with McCarthy’s agenda are seen as the enemy within and pursued ruthlessly. One of the most powerful sequences in the film is the original footage of the questioning of Annie Lee Moss, a communications worker at the Pentagon, who is accused of being a communist without knowing either her accuser’s identity or the evidence against her.

Murrow decided to challenge McCarthy and so risked his own career and the future of CBS. He, his journalist colleagues and production team discover that the most effective weapon against McCarthy was to show footage of the hearings and the methods employed and to leave the audience to draw their own conclusions. McCarthy is given the right of reply in an unchallenged broadcast and then Murrow responds to accusations made against him in a later broadcast. It’s riveting stuff creating real suspense over matters of genuine substance.

Other issues are addressed throughout the film; the tension between television’s purpose to entertain and to inform and the relationship between advertisers and programme makers. The film begins and ends with a speech from Murrow in which he calls on the public and television industry not to waste the opportunity to use the medium to inform and educate as well as entertain.

Clooney took a minimal fee in order to make this film and was prepared to mortgage his house to raise the funds. His career veers between popular blockbusters like the Oceans series and more cerebral films including Solaris and Syriana. It’s the blockbusters that enable him to make films like Good Night and Good Luck and for that we can forgive him the disaster that is Ocean’s 12, though my wife still can’t forgive him for advertising Nestle products.

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