It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that was as spare and shorn of theatrics as Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. When the subject of a film is overtly political, you expect that the filmmaker will take sides. And Clooney does. But it is the way in which he does this that takes your breath away.
For a start, the film is just about 90 minutes long. Book-ended by Ed Murrow’s speech at the Radio and Television News Directors’ Association, the film follows Murrow’s telecasts on See It Now in 1953-54, taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy. What interested me most about the film was the ways in which Clooney constantly undercuts the potentially inflammatory nature of the subject.
It is clear that Clooney intends for the film to speak directly to audiences today about events that affect them: The Bush administration’s war in Iraq; its Wild West posturing in the aftermath of 9/11; the Patriot Act and the other everyday compromises that Americans must make in the name of ridding themselves of acts of terror. Given such a fraught subject, and given that Clooney is not on the side of those who would give both sides of the debate equal airtime, this film is remarkably understated.
It becomes clear from the very beginning how this is going to play out: Ed Murrow says, “If what I say is responsible, I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Our history will be what we make of it.” Though he is addressing the RTNDA, he is in close up, so he speaks to us directly, today, cutting across the decades and making the issues of the McCarthy era our own.
In bracketing the film with this crucial speech, Clooney has constructed it in the way great speeches are constructed: he tells us what he’s going to tell us. He tells us. And he tells us that he’s told us. Ed Murrow starts with the premise that ‘history is what we make of it’. In the main body of the film, we see how it is that he intends to take responsibility and shape history in the only way he knows how: by not being neutral and by speaking out against institutionalised acts of terror wherever he sees them.
In a crucial scene when Murrow makes his first broadcast about McCarthy, the broadcast is over and everyone waits for the calls to come through, as they must after such a controversial programme. The phones don’t ring. The silence stretches and everyone wonders what this means, when someone discovers that the phones have been off the hook for the duration of the broadcast. Later that night, everyone celebrates at a bar and when it’s almost morning, they send for the newspapers, to see what the reviews say. Once again, there is total silence – such a gentle slide into it that that you understand the anxiety of the moment without being distanced from it by a technique that draws attention to itself.
And this is what characterises the whole film. Its soundtrack is spare and clean; the editing is so crisp and seamless it makes most Hollywood films seems bloated in the extreme. And most importantly, its script is so well-constructed, that when I was watching the film, a heard a few people saying, ‘wah!’ We often forget what pleasure there is in listening to good dialogue well delivered. Nobody knew how to do it better than directors like Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and so many of Hollywood’s directors in the 50’s. And now Clooney shows that he (and Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the screenplay) can not only write good dialogue, but can also shoot it well. So many brilliant lines can be wasted by stodgy shot-taking.
Much has been said about the use of documentary footage of McCarthy, so I won’t go into it. I thought the film made its case for a vigilant media with understated passion. At the end, Murrow – once again talking directly to us in close up, unmediated by the presence of the audience at the dinner – says about television, “This instrument can teach. It can illuminate and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck.”
Of course, in our times, news is the new circus. Our problem is not that entertainment is drowning the still, sane voice of the committed journalist; our problem is that we no longer know who is the journalist and who is the entertainer and where the presentation of fact ends and the mesmerising horror of breaking news begins.
But that is another story and, as in the best traditions, shall be told another time.