We live in an age where people — Ann Coulter, in particular — are trying to rehabilitate or re-invent or re-imagine the long-disgraced Sen. Joseph McCarthy as some kind of misunderstood American hero. Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly’s fence had nothing on this line of thought when it comes to whitewash, so it’s more than a little encouraging to find George Clooney — as director, co-writer and actor — taking on the McCarthy era with Good Night, and Good Luck. And he does so with style, wit and a pretty fearless agenda.
That last word, of course, is a bad one in some circles, though why anyone who didn’t have an agenda would make a film about McCarthy is a mystery to me. (And while Ms. Coulter may not have made a movie, it would take someone with a terminal case of credulity to claim that she doesn’t have an agenda.)
The sense of agenda is made more concrete by a framing speech given by Edward R. Murrow that’s designed to draw attention to the sorry state of TV news today, and yet the film still doesn’t go after McCarthy with the fervor that might be expected. Instead, it allows him to indict himself through archival footage (used by Clooney in part because he couldn’t find anyone he felt could play the role, and a factor in the director’s artistically viable decision to shoot in black and white).
Rather than tackle the entire McCarthy era, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov wisely chose to focus on one set of events — those that led to McCarthy’s downfall through the efforts of legendary broadcaster Murrow (David Strathairn, Twisted) and his news team at CBS. Perhaps Murrow did not himself bring down McCarthy — the tide really turned when attorney Joseph N. Welch (also seen in the film in archival footage) asked the senator during the U.S. Army-McCarthy hearings, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” But Murrow very much set the stage.
Good Night depicts this with admirable drive and economy — perhaps a little too much economy. If the film has any significant flaw, it lies in its assumption that the viewer is familiar with the McCarthy era and the senator’s “red-baiting” witch-hunt; Clooney dives into its story with very little background.
We arrive in a world that’s already an established fact in the filmmaker’s mind, and it’s up to us to pick up on the mood of those times and the incredible atmosphere of fear and paranoia — although paranoia may be the wrong word, since anyone who disagreed with McCarthy or his bullying, innuendo-as-fact methods and the House Un-American Activities Committee stood a good chance of being attacked. Careers were ruined and lives were destroyed on flimsy — and sometimes nonexistent — “evidence” that people were communists (which, in fact, was not in itself illegal) or sympathetic to the communist cause.
Anyone who stood up to McCarthy and the committee was jailed or put on a blacklist (that was said not to exist) and denied work. When Charles Chaplin returned to America in 1952, still a British citizen, after going to England to promote his film, Limelight, he was told he would not be allowed to enter the country unless he agreed to appear before HUAC. Whereupon he simply stayed on the ship and went back to England, not setting foot in the U.S. for another 20 years. It was a decision that, of course, resulted in Chaplin being branded a communist without his having done anything.
While Clooney’s film offers a microcosm of those times — the fear, the red-baiting, the suicide of “tainted” broadcaster Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise, Jeepers Creepers II) — I’m not entirely convinced that Good Night‘s enclosed world (the film rarely leaves the newsroom or the executive offices of CBS) adequately conveys the pervasiveness of the events under scrutiny.
That said, this is still a wonderfully made film with an array of brilliant performances. It’s likewise an important film that needs to be seen and discussed — and examined for the uncomfortable parallels it suggests with the world today. Good Night, and Good Luck also proves, if proof were needed, that Clooney is a masterful filmmaker and that his undervalued Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was no fluke. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke