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"Good Night" — a valuable history lesson told with style and drama
Seattle Times movie critic
George Clooney's marvelous "Good Night, and Good Luck" turns history into jazz, and it's intoxicating. Filmed in elegant, smoke-blurred black and white, it's the tightly focused story of newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his 1953-54 feud, conducted over television airwaves, with Sen. Joseph McCarthy over the Communist witch hunts.
Dianne Reeves' sultry voice croons jazz standards like "One For My Baby" and "How High the Moon," and her words curl around the actors like the smoke from the cigarettes they clutch. We're watching history in these scenes, but it's casual; these dark-suited men — and one woman — are just doing their jobs.
Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov frame their story with a banquet honoring Murrow in the late '50s, long after the McCarthy events. It sets the tone precisely: the slow music, the camera lingering loosely on faces whose shadows leap out in the filtered light.
A man steps to the podium — who? it doesn't matter yet — and introduces Murrow, saying "He threw stones at giants." Strathairn steps up, his face glowing white and his hair slicked back. He speaks in Murrow's familiar needle-sharp voice, unsmiling, and everyone listens reverently, remembering an earlier time.
And back we go into that time, still not quite sure who everyone is — some of those guys in their dark suits look alike, but confident that we're in good hands.
Clooney, who also co-stars as Murrow's producer Fred Friendly, never falters. His film is perfectly controlled, tightly edited (it's over in a snap, after 90 minutes) and casually dazzling.
Its words, taken from history, resonate today. Murrow declares: "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home," and you sit up in your seat, wondering who's saying these words now.
"Good Night, and Good Luck," with David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels. Directed by Clooney, from a screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov. 90 minutes. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language. Guild 45th, Uptown.
For those not old enough to remember the era it documents, "Good Night, and Good Luck" serves as a valuable history lesson, and a reminder of what network news was and could be. (The film's title comes from Murrow's traditional sign-
off, delivered crisply and almost apologetically.)
But it's a lesson that crackles with style and drama. Murrow and McCarthy face off like David and Goliath: Strathairn, cigarette in hand, faces the camera as McCarthy looms on a screen behind him. (McCarthy is played by himself, in video footage from the era. If an actor meticulously duplicated this performance, complete with the heavy breathing and sweaty worm of hair on the forehead, he'd surely be accused of overplaying.)
Strathairn, as Murrow, gives a precise yet natural performance, a formal man with enough of a sense of humor to raise his eyebrows nearly to Canada at the close of a broadcast.
After one of his famous speeches, he looks quizzically at Friendly, as if to indicate disbelief that this needed to be said. He's clearly appalled by the necessity of what he's doing and the incredible obviousness of what he's saying: that one can, for example, talk to a Communist without becoming a Communist. "We shall hope to deal with matters of more vital interest to the country next week," he notes dryly in closing.
Clooney ends the film as casually as he began it, and before we're ready for it to be over — the ideas are still spinning in our minds. And when's the last time you said that about a movie?
"Good Night, and Good Luck" will be talked about for its timely message, and rightly so — but don't disregard its artistry. See it, to see what the news once was — and to see what movies can be.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company