By now, after the Oscar hype, most readers probably know the basic premise of Good night, and good luck. The movie is set in the early 1950s in America, and this was the time of the second big red scare in the United States. It was the time of an intense anti-communist movement in America, which was marked by extreme paranoia. It was then that Joseph McCarthy, a junior Republican Senator from Wisconsin, became notorious for making widespread accusations of membership of people in the communist party, or communist sympathizing organizations. His accusations did not spare even senior officials in government, and the Democratic Party. People from all walks of life were suspected of being communist spies, and many were victimized.
It was a time of fear, and extreme paranoia.
It was also the early years for pioneering television broadcasting. Edward Murrow was an outstanding journalist of that time, and he had (even before this incident) become a legend for his War time radio broadcasts. Upright and uncompromising in his integrity, he was one of the outstanding journalists of the time from CBS (then known as the Columbia broadcasting corporation). And in his pioneering television series, See it now, Murrow took on the man who, through his bullying and recklessness, had eroded the eternal American values of individual freedom, Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Edward Murrow (David Strathairn) believes McCarthy has gone too far, and takes on him in his TV show. He first talks about a US Air force soldier, who is asked to pay for the (speculative) possibility of his father being a communist sympathizer. He then goes on to broadcast McCarthy’s speeches on his show, speeches that had not reached the wider American audience. McCarthy, in a vindictive response, attacks Murrow personally, and ruthlessly, in single minded character assassination.
Edward, in his shows, is supported throughout by his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney). And this show goes on to affect both men and their crew deeply.
This movie is a small masterpiece that Clooney (as director) has crafted. His portrayal of newsrooms, with the drama, tension, politics and action, is outstanding. For McCarthy’s part, he comes up with a little masterstroke. He just uses superbly edited clips of McCarthy’s original, recorded speeches, and that from the McCarthy hearings, and trial later on. Seeing McCarthy in full (real) rant during the Army-McCarthy hearings is a terrifying spectacle. The movie relentlessly stays on politics, and the newsroom. This intensity can be suffocating at times. There are little bits that rankle, not only for their intensity, and their portrayal of the time, but also for their relevance for today. The pressures that politicians and advertising has on newsrooms haven’t changed much. Murray was an honest and hard-hitting reporter, but himself not perfect. At a point, it is felt that he no longer is staying on the line of neutrality, and not offering both sides of the argument. His response, that he is doing what the truth and his integrity is compelling to do, is moving and yet raises questions. Murray himself is not without flaws of his own.
The movie does well to keep up the atmosphere of paranoia. There are little diversions, like the roles of Robert Downy Jr, and Patricia Clarkson, both CBS employees who work for Fred and Murray, and lead us to believe in conspiracy theories that are not there. The movie reminds us that dissent is not disloyalty, and any one with questions is not unpatriotic. There is a right to disagree. It stands up to the right an individual has to be tried in court, with the evidence in full view, before being declared guilty and punished. McCarthy, with his vindictive bullying, created his own downfall. And Murray showed that unbending integrity in the newsroom can indeed have a profound effect.
David Strathairn, as Edward Murray, pulls off an acting coup. He’s incredibly subtle, and underplays Murray’s role to perfection. This is a masterclass in acting, of a kind that hasn’t been seen often in recent days. Clooney, Downey, Clarkson and the rest of the cast are perfect too. Shooting the movie in black and white lends credibility with the intensity. After all, McCarthy’s broadcasts were in black and white, as was Murray’s “See it now”. And this is a layered, textured, rich movie, with many, many moments to enjoy. It’s not blunt and in-your-face as (the eventual best picture of 2006) Crash was. The nuances and moments are there to marvel at, while the greater message reaches us.
This will remain an exceptional film.