The film begins at an industry dinner to honor Murrow. In 1958, Edward R. Murrow, speaking at the Radio-Television Directors Association annual meeting, said that television should and could produce important journalism.
“To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: there is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose?
“Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
It is safe to say that television has progressed beyond being just lights and wires in a box. Forty seven years after that speech was made, in 2005, George Clooney brought that speech back to life in his film Good Night, And Good Luck.
Clooney starred as CBS TV-News Producer Fred Friendly. David Strathairn portrayed Murrow. Together they took on the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy who, while claiming to be protecting the United States from the insidious Communist scourge which was infesting the country, was really creating an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, hysteria, and paranoia. It was the classic example of the medicine being worse than the disease. It was the era of McCarthyism where a smear tactic has as much impact and effectiveness as a bullet.
Countless lives were destroyed via innuendo, hearsay, vague connections, tenuous circumstances, or unproven allegations. When Milo Radulovich was thrown out of the Air Force for being a security threat, and the case and presumably the evidence remained sealed, Murrow and Friendly swung into action. Their aim was to take down that junior Senator. In doing so. Murrow knew that he would himself become a target for McCarthy.
Clooney brought this period of history to life in this black and white film. That’s not a negative – instead it is a plus because in those days, television broadcasts were in black and white, the TV’s were small. Newspapers were bigger in size than tv screens. There was no color in newspapers either.
The entire film is shot indoors. We are set up in the tv news room and offices. It is tight quarters all around, not unlike a film about a submarine – okay, maybe not so much so in the offices of William Paley who was the head of CBS. Frank Langella had the role of Paley.
Paley was in proverbial tight quarters himself. He faced walking that fine line between corporate profitability and news reportage. He was also under fire from sponsors like Alcoa who weren’t happy about what Murrow was doing. Murrow and Friendly offered to pay the network for the commercials that were pulled. But Paley stood behind his newsmen as long as could.
In one memorable moment, Friendly and Murrow are at work. There’s a phone call from Paley to Murrow. Ed, I’ve got tickets to the Knickerbockers game tonight, court side seats. Want to go? Sorry I can’t. I’m bringing down the network tonight.
Strathairn did not look like Murrow – but he had studied Murrow so closely that the gestures, the posture, the movement, the clothing, and the speech patterns were spot-on. As was the cigarette smoking.
Clooney played Friendly in a realistic way. Friendly was the producer of the show. In fact this often meant that he sat on the floor beneath Murrow’s on-set desk to give Murrow the tap on the leg to signify ‘you’re on the air’. Clooney took the less glamorous role on-screen. But he co-wrote the script (with Grant Heslov) and also directed the film, so we can at least understand that the circumstances were likely best served with Clooney not taking the Murrow role.
Three things about the film that you don’t see nowadays. The first is the issue of smoking. Most of the characters smoked in the film, and of course Murrow as well, even while in a live broadcast. To add to the hazy cloud of smoke that was already circling above most of the characters, even an actual TV commercial from one of the original broadcasts of Murrow’s show, for Kent cigarettes, was in the film. Viewed in today’s environment and mindset, that commercial seems almost surreal.
The second was the lack of music. There were musical interludes but not during any of the dramatic scenes and not in the sense of a musical score playing beneath the film action. In fact, the music was set in a nightclub and Diana Reeves performed the singing. These scenes functioned as breaks in the dramatic narrative, as if they were commercials, only they were songs.
The third thing to note is that Clooney did not choose to hire an actor to play McCarthy. Instead actual archival footage was used. The adjunct to this was that they also did not write lines for McCarthy. Everything he said in the film was real, not the work of a screenwriter.
I had not seen this movie during its theatrical run. Nor had I seen it as a DVD. I guess the reasons were that I didn’t know anything about the film’s subject, and that a b&w film, didn’t provide enough of an impetus or inspiration to seek the film out and watch it.
But having now spent the 93 minutes it takes to watch the film, I’m glad I did see it. The film garnered six Oscar nominations: Directing, Original Screenplay, Actor, Best Picture, Cinematography, and Art Direction. While it didn’t win a single Oscar, you can’t hold that against the film. It was an extremely worthwhile film watching experience.
I’m going to rate the film at four and half out of five. I’ll also recommend the film without reservations. To close out this review, I’ll give you the three taglines for the film:
We Will Not Walk In Fear Of One Another.
In A Nation Terrorized By Its Own Government, One Man Dared to Tell the Truth.
They Took On The Government With Nothing But The Truth.
Have a look at the trailer: