Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Five

#5 — Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney, 2005)
The year that Good Night, and Good Luck. was released, George Clooney used his ample personal funds to get particularly fitting and telling Christmas gifts for many of his friends. He bestowed upon them personally selected DVD collections, assembling 100 films, predominantly released between 1964 and 1976, that he considered essential. Clooney included titles like All the President’s Men, The Candidate, Shampoo, and, of particular interest, The Front, Martin Ritt’s 1976 drama about Hollywood writers blacklisted alleged Communist sympathies. Like these, many of the films were resolutely political while still operating as clear efforts at entertaining. There was a time when those two approaches weren’t mutually exclusive, and the projects that Clooney tends to gravitate towards certainly imply that he’d like to be operating in an era more in line with that.

For the setting of his sophomore directorial effort, Clooney looked even earlier. Good Night, and Good Luck. is about Edward R. Murrow, adopting his trademark sign-off for its title. It follows the journalism icon as he works with his colleagues in the offices of CBS News in early nineteen-fifties. They produce an investigative piece on Milo Radulovich, who was facing removal from the U.S. Military because of alleged Communist activities engaged in by his relatives. This leads to an escalating conflict with Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin and the primary architect of the pervasive fear-mongering about the insidious influence of “reds” on American society. Knowing full well that they themselves could become the vindictive politician’s next targets, Murrow and the rest of the team behind the news program See It Now decide it’s their responsibility, their mandate to take on McCarthy, exposing his falsehoods and hypocrisies, his indifference to accuracy and his abuses of power. It is a true-hearted manifestation of mass media as the fourth estate, provide a forceful set of checks and balances against those who’ve conspired with others at the pinnacle of American power to make themselves immune from scrutiny and criticism. Murrow and his fellow suit-and-tie reporters are doing nothing short of standing up for liberty.

This has the makings of a didactic cinematic civics lesson, an extended act of underlining the importance of crusading journalism that betrays a self-congratulatory bent by the filmmakers, a veneer of satisfaction reflective of the conviction that by simply presenting the history lesson they too are heroic. Hollywood history is littered with such films, stiff and stalwart depictions of noble souls that perversely allow no room to actually see and feel the soul of the individuals ushered up to their respective pedestals. Clooney, aided by his co-screenwriter Grant Heslov, takes the exact opposite approach. He’s clearly impressed with what these newsmen (and one newswoman) did, but he’s also enamored with who they are. This doesn’t mean plumbing their psyches like an intrusive psychoanalyst, finding the childhood traumas that shaped their shared intolerance of duly elected bullies. It means letting them work, debate, challenge each other, weigh the value of different opinions and theories as they pull together the broadcasts meant to inform the public about the injustices being meted out in their name. Except for one subplot about a married couple on the newsroom that keeps their relationship secret because it violates company policy, Clooney isn’t especially interested in the characters’ private lives. He follows them no further than the downstairs bar where they gather after the cameras go dark, and await the reactions printed in the daily newspapers over heavy glass tumblers of brown liquor. In Clooney’s astute assessment, this is who they they are, working stiff toiling in the quarries of information, eyes and minds always keenly alert to the eternal open debates of society.

While Clooney’s own views on such matters are hardly secret, he doesn’t skew the film to ratify his personal opinions. When William Paley, the chief executive of CBS played splendidly by Frank Langella, pushes back against Murrow, noting that he may be crossing the hairline-crack-thin line between journalism and advocacy, the arguments he presents are sound and thoughtful. The drama of these moments, and many others in the film, arises from the fact that these issues are being debated by intellectual equals. Rather than reacting rashly, they’ve thought through their points and present them fully secure in their validity. This isn’t the modern dissonant clamor of people staking out home bases on extreme ends of the political spectrum and defending them vehemently in the face of any contrary evidence. Instead, it’s the bygone maturity of educated adults acting in accordance with their age and the developing wisdom that comes with it. This is how the media approached its work at one point, when its members took seriously their responsibility to be committed stewards of the public airwaves, protecting the discourse from fraudulent allegations and other crackpot nonsense. There was time when being correct and intellectually honest was held in greater esteem than being first or most sensationalistic.

Clooney brings the best of those old newsroom principles to his own craft. The film is precise and measured, fully invested in delivering its story with clarity. He makes his points quietly, but forcefully. The film was released right in the heart of the era in which politicians, led by the denizens of the White House, were quick to cast any opposition to their actions, particularly efforts to erode civil liberties in the supposed cause of protecting freedom, as some virulent form of anti-Americanism, as if demanding respect for guaranteed rights and calling for national and military policies to reflect the moral compass of the citizenry isn’t actually the height of patriotism. Clooney undoubtedly wants the audience to see the parallels between the widely acknowledged insidiousness of McCarthyism and the worst infractions of Washington figures dismantling the Constitution at the break of the 21st century. But there’s another larger target here: the modern media that complacently stands by and abets this brutalization through their fealty to those in power. It’s no small matter that Good Night, and Good Luck. is framed by an address that Edward R. Murrow gave to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in which he crossly lamented the rapidly declining state of broadcast journalism. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire,” he said about televison, adding “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.” A half century later, Clooney revived those words, made sadly more truthful through the passage of time. Clooney’s film is a tribute to Murrow and the era in which he worked, and then watched sorrowfully as it dwindled away. More importantly, it is a scathing indictment of the the era we move through now, where the media as a whole lacks the fortitude required to fulfill its duty.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)