The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

October 19, 2005

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 18 Oct 2005 23:42:09 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Movie: Good Night, And Good Luck

Good Night, And Good Luck

David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson,
Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels

Directed by George Clooney

Does George Clooney have a box-office death wish? You
have to wonder why the star of Ocean's Eleven would risk
his standing as a pinup for ka-ching to direct, co-write
and co-star in a movie set in the 1950s, shot in black-
and-white and focused on a fifty-year-old battle between
TV newsman Edward R. Murrow, indelibly played by David
Strathairn, and the Commie-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Wonder no more. Clooney knows exactly what he's doing:
blowing the dust off ancient TV history to expose
today's fat, complacent news media as even more ready to
bow to networks, sponsors and the White House. As Murrow
said in a 1958 speech, which frames Clooney's dynamite
film, the powers that be much prefer TV as an instrument
to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate." Challenge is
a loser's game.

Not in this movie. In ninety-three tight, terrifically
exciting minutes, Clooney makes integrity look mighty
sexy. With the help of cinematographer Robert Elswit and
editor Stephen Mirrione, Clooney turns the CBS newsroom
into a hothouse of journalistic risk-taking. It's
exhilarating to watch as Murrow decides to use his CBS
news show See It Now (it ran from 1951 to 1958) to call
McCarthy's bluff. Murrow persuades network boss Bill
Paley (Frank Langella is a marvel of scary, seductive
command) to hold the sponsors at bay while he and
producer Fred Friendly (a subtly forceful Clooney) lay
out a battle plan.

As a director, Clooney moves with admirable speed and
economy. He sometimes tripped over his ambitions in
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his 2002 debut behind
the camera. But here his hand is assured, his wit
focused, his target never in doubt. This self-confessed
"big old liberal," raised in the heat of media debate as
the son of TV journalist Nick Clooney, is a born
muckraker. With Good Night, and Good Luck -- the words
used by Murrow to sign off his broadcasts -- Clooney
emerges as a powerhouse filmmaker. The film only rarely
leaves the CBS studios, but Clooney establishes the
furtive atmosphere of the time. Reporter Joe Wershba (an
avid Robert Downey Jr.) must hide his marriage to a
fellow staff member (the reliably superb Patricia
Clarkson) because of network rules. News anchor Don
Hollenbeck (a deeply touching Ray Wise) is driven to
suicide by a red-baiting columnist. Clooney has taken
some flak for using singer Diane Reeves as a bridge
between scenes, but her bold jazz stylings -- in the
manner of George's aunt Rosemary Clooney -- fit right in
with the film's insistence on upturning the standard
version of history. These aren't white guys in suits
flexing their muscles to win ratings. These are
newspeople flying by the seat of their pants for
something they believe in, even if it costs them big

At the center of the storm is Murrow, standing firm
against the push for compromise. It's a bitch -- not to
mention a bore -- to play a noble monument. Strathairn
dodges that pitfall by making Murrow fallible, funny and
human. Chain-smoking off the air and on, he mines the
humor in the deft script by Clooney and producer Grant
Heslov. Murrow wasn't so lofty that he refused to
interview celebs for the CBS show Person to Person.
Clooney includes a hilarious clip of gay pianist
Liberace being asked by Murrow if he's ready to settle
down with the right girl. Helping to spawn celeb
journalism on the tube is a sin Murrow never lived down.
His distinction came in picking his battles. Strathairn
lets us see the war in Murrow's eyes as he takes on
McCarthy not just for confusing dissent with disloyalty
but for deciding to smear Murrow himself when the
senator makes an appearance on See It Now. A spark of
rage burns in Murrow, and Strathairn shows us the flame.
Best known for his work in the films of his Williams
College friend John Sayles (check out Passion Fish right
now if you haven't seen it), Strathairn comes into his
own with this career role, to which he brings three
decades of acting expertise. It's a performance of
ferocity and feeling that you won't soon forget.

A word here about the guy who plays McCarthy. You have
to forgive the way he overdoes the sweaty, manipulative
monster aspects of the role, because, thanks to
Clooney's judicious use of actual film footage, McCarthy
plays himself. The studio is pushing for a posthumous
Oscar nomination.

I think not. More Oscar justice would be done in the
name of the live ones. For a paltry $8 million, Clooney
has crafted a period piece that speaks potently to a
here-and-now when constitutional rights are being
threatened in the name of the Patriot Act, and the
American media trade in truth for access. "We will not
be driven by fear into an age of unreason," said Murrow.
Amen to that, brother. Good night, and good luck.


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"The loins now take to themselves the bulkiness [which previously was the
characteristic] of the waist; the belly takes possession of the depression
[which previously was the characteristic] of the breasts; the line of hair
on the body [characteristic of the period] runs off with the straightness
of the glances [which then fall into a sidelong habit]. Seeing Cupid newly
inaugurated in the empire of her mind, the members of the fair-browed one,
for the moment, as it were, mutually plunder one another [as people are
wont to do at the commencement of a new reign before the king can ascer-
tain what properly belongs to each]." Sahitya-Darpana (Mirror of Composi-
tion) 99b, by Vis'wanatha Kaviraja, trans. James Ballantyne, Calcutta,

Matt Frantz = electronics / production / electric guitar / electric bass
Alan Sondheim = acoustic guitar
from Unbalanced, Grand Central Art Center, late August, 2005

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