Wednesday 26th January 2022

Good Night, and Good Luck (PG)
Directed by: George Clooney
Reviewed by: James Smith

What is the role of television? Should it entertain or should it educate? In his first film as a director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney explored the American television entertainment industry of the 1960s and the dumbing-down heralded by Chuck Barris' lowest-common-denominator game shows. In contrast, here, in his second film, he looks at the flip side of the television industry: serious journalism.

"No, neither of us ordered a Bernard Manning-o-gram"

Set in 1950s America, this is the tale of the battle on the airwaves between Senator Joseph McCarthy and the television journalist Edward R. Murrow, played superbly by David Strathairn (L.A. Confidential). Murrow fronts the CBS weekly current affairs show See It Now, and one week he and his producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney himself) decide to run a piece about a marine who has been kicked out of the forces because his father allegedly had Communist links. Soon the "junior Senator from Wisconsin" (as Murrow continually refers to McCarthy) responds to the thinly veiled accusations that his investigations are irresponsible and unconstitutional, and we are treated to stock footage from 1950s newsreel of McCarthy addressing the nation. However, as the opposition in the right-wing press becomes fiercer and the show's future comes under threat from terrified controllers, Murrow's team steps up its pursuit of exposing the senator's hideous methods of bringing anyone with the vaguest link to a Communist past, no matter how tenuous, before a committee, and thus ruining their career and reputation.

While the film is ostensibly about McCarthy, it is the defence of free speech in the press and the right to fair trial that make it particularly relevant to the present. Replacing McCarthy's exhortations about the "Communist threat" with similar sentiments about the "Terrorist threat" and you could be listening to one of the Bush administration defending the incarceration of suspects without trial at Guantanamo Bay, or a member of Blair's government speaking about the detention of suspected terrorists without trial. As Murrow says, it is not the exoneration of those guilty of criminal activities for which he is arguing, simply that the evidence against them be tried and tested in the open, for all the world to see and the courts to judge justly.

Political debate is the bulk of the film, and there is little else that one would normally look for: dramatic tension, character development and a climactic conclusion are all lacking. The support cast, including Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella and Ray Wise, are all strong, but, with little to do, the various fates of their characters are merely sideshows and lack emotional impact. Returning to the theme of the role of television, a similar question could be asked about cinema: should it entertain or educate? In Confessions, Clooney by turns amused, bemused and intrigued the audience, while here he rarely lets up on the moralising, with only a few timeouts for some moody jazz breaking it up – a clear case of the movie-making reflecting the subject matter. I don't want to give the impression that this is dull: the whole thing looks beautiful, with smoky newsrooms captured evocatively by the lush black and white photography, and watching McCarthy shot down in the extensive contemporary footage is compelling. It is telling that, while See It Now eventually gets swept away by populist programming, and mainstream films of this ilk have been few and far between in recent years, the only films preventing this from winning awards this year are other provocative and politicised examples. Perhaps the public now wants to be educated again in the current, uncertain world climate - last felt when the West feared Communism would sweep their democracies away.

With the recent events over cartoons in European newspapers and several high profile judicial trials which have scrutinised the right to espouse heinous perversions of the truth publicly, this film could not be more topical or relevant. The fact that it lacks some of the things you normally expect from ‘cinema' should not prevent you from going to see it. It is well worth giving up ninety-three minutes of your time to have your views challenged and thoughts provoked.

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Length: 93 minutes
Certificate: PG
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IMDB Link:
Release Date: 17th February 2006

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