Good night, and good luck

December 15, 2005

When Woody Allen’s Manhattan hit the screens, way back in 1979, everyone was amazed at the glamour of its black-and-white cinematography. The movie was as seductive as a photo by Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz or Brassai. It conjured up nostalgia for the golden days of Hollywood, and lent a sharpness to the way characters were delineated. One suddenly became aware of how much sheer distraction occurs in mainstream colour films.

The black-and-white trick has been performed many times since, but rarely with such distinction. This is, of course, the way of all innovations: what begins as a stylistic tour-de-force quickly degenerates into a gimmick. So when George Clooney decided to shoot Good night, and good luck in monochrome, he had to be sure he had a story that made cinematic sense.

In telling the tale of television newsman, Edward R. Murrow, and his historic confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy, Clooney aimed to recreate the exact feel of the CBS TV studio, circa 1953. He incorporates a lot of actual newsreel footage that feels more natural and seamless in black-and-white. It is significant that one of the leading protagonists, the fanatical McCarthy, only appears in archival footage. According to producer, Grant Heslov, “whomever we got to play McCarthy, no matter how good they were, nobody was going to believe it. They were going to think that the guy was over-acting.”

Instead, we see the real McCarthy over-acting, playing the Grand Inquisitor role at the anti-communist hearings, badgering and bullying defendants. It is disturbing to see the wild look in McCarthy’s eyes, and his seedy, disheveled appearance. It is disturbing to realize that someone who looked so untrustworthy wielded a political power that was able to destroy careers in the media, the military, the civil service and the entertainment industry, largely on the basis of trumped-up charges and his own paranoia.

Edward R. Murrow was a legendary CBS reporter, known for his broadcasts from Europe during the Second World War, and for his pioneering work in investigative journalism and documentary making. Above all, it is Murrow’s commitment to truth and social justice that has ensured that his reputation endures.

The film begins with Murrow giving a speech, very like the Andrew Olle Memorial Lecture, on the dangers of news selling out to entertainment and sponsor-driven advertorial. Sound familiar? This film should, perhaps, be screened as a double bill with Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed, just to underline the achievements of Fox News in turning news into bad theatre. Then again, one might simply watch the nightly “current affairs” programs on Channels Nine or Seven.

Murrow is played by David Strathairn – chosen for the role because, like Murrow himself, he gave the impression of always carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It is a masterly performance, showing Murrow as a lean, nervy man with a steely determination. He smokes continuously, even during his TV broadcasts, and it is no surprise to learn that he would die of lung cancer.

Inside this tight ensemble production, Clooney and his team create an air of growing tension, as the decision is made – regardless of all thoughts of self-preservation – to take on McCarthy for his reckless and undemocratic activities. Clooney himself plays producer, Fred Friendly, with actors such as Robert Downey Jnr, Patricia Clarkson and Jeff Daniels taking the supporting roles. The jazz singer, Dianne Reeves, adds to the atmosphere of the times, crooning in the bar where the journos meet to talk tactics.

The result of Murrow’s action was a qualified triumph. He succeeded in undermining McCarthy, and starting the process that would see him removed from the Congressional committees. At the same time, CBS decided to relegate Murrow’s controversial program, See it Now, to Sunday afternoon. The confrontation had left both parties as spent forces.

There is, of course, a very particular point to be made, in an era of terrorist threats and draconian anti-terror legislation. In his holy dread of Communism, McCarthy reproduced the same show trials and unjustified accusations that had distinguished Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s. In responding to the spread of terror, and the events of September 11, the Bush administration has created a concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay, in which the most basic tenets of justice are waived.

The sumptuous black-and-white of this film acts as an ironic metaphor for a political process that is never black-and-white, with a fixed cast of goodies and baddies. Clooney says that his chief motivation was to show “how dangerous a democracy can be if fear is used as a weapon.” He might have gone further and said that it is those societies in which democracy is both a fact of life and a cause for endless self-congratulation, that are most vulnerable to specious scare-mongering. These are the places that, in response to invisible threats, are most willing to give away those freedoms we all take for granted.

Published for The Diplomat
Dendy Cinemas (release date: 15 December 2005)

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