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Film Review

Good Night, and Good Luck

(October 18, 2005) Could there be a more timely film than this? It is the 1950's, the Cold War is not cold, and America is becoming obsessed by the threat of domestic Communist subversion. This obsession with Communist spies, fueled by the Rosenberg case and the search for other spies, produced a hysteric atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Americans were intimidated by the red hunters, when dissent was seen by many as equivalent to treason. Few were willing to stand up to the pressure or their techniques of guilt by association and often outright lying, for fear of losing their jobs or worse. Even those in the highest positions of power seemed afraid to confront this witch hunt. The entertainment industry was completely cowed, with the sad spectacle of people being forced to testify about obscure meetings 20 years ago, or being harassed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee or one of the Senate subcommittees, headed by the now infamous Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Those that refused to testify were blacklisted by the film industry, fired, or could not be hired. Most "named names." One of the few that was willing to confront McCarthy and expose his lies was the CBS broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, who had become well known and respected through his coverage of the London Blitz.

George Clooney has written (with Grant Heslov), directed, and acts in a compelling look at a six month period, beginning in the fall of 1953, in which Murrow begins a series of investigations and television broadcasts to discredit McCarthy and his smear tactics. David Strathairn plays Murrow, and George Clooney plays his producer, Fred Friendly. Both men realize that they are risking not only their careers, but the future of CBS, led by William Paley (played by Frank Langella). CBS risked the boycott of their sponsors, which were the principal sources of income. Paley was very aware of this, but reluctantly backed Murrow, albeit with many reservations. The irony is that CBS adhered to the black list, something not mentioned in the film. Done in black and white, nearly all of the scenes take place in the studio with many extreme close-ups, a few others in a neighboring lounge, all of which gives the film an appropriately claustrophobic feeling. McCarthy and other senators are shown in film clips, taken as they criticize Murrow and CBS. Everyone smokes, and the sets are dead on 1950's high end interiors. Clooney succeeds in giving this film the same tension that Murrow and his crew must have felt then. I have never particularly liked Strathairn or the characters he plays, but here he is outstanding, as is every other person in the film. The music, jazz from the 50's, is lovely and is tone perfect background.

The script has been taken directly from the records, with little apparent embellishment. Murrow's editorials, read to the camera, are magnificent lessons of civic virtue and courage, and ring as true today as 50 years ago. Good Night is short, only an hour and a half, but every minute compelling. The film clips are equally fascinating, particularly attorney Joseph Welch's famous and powerful statement to McCarthy during the HUAC hearings: "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" A great moment in American history; powerful then, powerful now. It helped undo McCarthy. My only criticism of Good Night is that the tight focus on Murrow and his confrontation with McCarthy doesn't give as clear a sense of the power and fear of the witch hunts that swept the entire country. The film ends with a clip of an Eisenhower speech, which is ironic considering that he refused to condemn McCarthy or his tactics.

Nevertheless this is a film that needs to be seen. It is real drama, with a real hero. I was very moved, and convinced that this film will endure and be as highly regarded years from now as it is today. Good Night is a powerful lesson in history that is especially relevant today as the current administration uses fear to erode civil liberties. Incidentally, the owners of Landmark Theaters, 2929 Entertainment, helped make this film possible. Currently playing at the Embarcadero on two screens.

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