David Strathairn will get an Oscar for his performance as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Just you watch.
He was incredible. The tight formality and morality with which Murrow battled crazy right-wing Sen. Joe McCarthy was fully evident in every nuance of Strathairn’s performance. His voice was not even his own. The peculiar intonations to Murrow’s soothing voice were so accurately replicated that Strathairn has achieved legendary status in the practice of the mimetic art.
The film as a whole was intellectually fulfilling in a way that visual entertainment normally declines to do. Remembering that smart people watch movies too, director George Clooney has presented a film that is as much a documentary as it is a debate, as much history as heroic.
The imagery and the pacing absorb the viewer into a 1950s newsroom at CBS News, with a wonderful backdrop of hectic energy and aggressive professionalism that had the tautly capable Murrow at the center of the information storm. This was the most engaging aspect of the movie – a look into not only the past, but behind the scenes of the past, behind the camera that gave us the footage that makes us think of the black-and-white, idyllic 1950s era.
The growing threat of communist witch-hunters grows in this backdrop world, and Strathairn’s Murrow decides with George Clooney’s Fred Friendly to stop the erosion of freedom when an Air Force pilot is charged, tried and sentenced based on evidence in a sealed envelope. Who charged him, and what with, nobody knew; not the pilot, not the press, nobody.
The expectation that everyone take the government on faith was not enough for the CBS News department, and they decided to run a story on the pilot over the government’s wishes. In response, Murrow was accused of being a communist and a member of the International Workers of the World.
The fight began. Murrow and Friendly ran their historic broadcast against McCarthy’s tactics and methods, which was almost as riveting as watching the broadcast come into fruition. Those of us born well after this event accept it as part of history, an inevitable outcome that would happen eventually, when some patriot declared that enough was enough. Murrow just happened to be that patriot.
But Clooney brought us a film that captures the agonizing decision, the fear of the consequences, and the held breath as it happens. More than a chronicle of a historical media event, “Good Night, and Good Luck” captures the characters, the tension and the mood of the time in which it takes place.
It is not, by modern standards, a wildly entertaining movie. There are no car crashes or chase scenes, and no girl is saved from the clutches of an evil villain. Movies often, as Murrow said of television, are used “to entertain, amuse and insulate.” “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a rarer kind of movie, a movie that we need desperately if we are to be informed citizens. The media “can teach, it can illuminate, and it can even inspire. But it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and a box.”
Thankfully, the public has been graced with a moral servant in the form of George Clooney, upon whose back this project was borne. He does make films that happily entertain, but also recognizes that his social capital can then be spent on furthering the greater good of his fellow man. Intellectual investigations into government-media battles of the past are but one way for viewers to get their minds working. I look forward to Clooney’s next project of social examination, in anticipation of even more people recognizing that attending films such as these is more than entertainment.