When Jim Carrey got all dolled up, put on the funny accent, and opened his eyes real wide to play Andy Kaufman way back when, in “Man on the Moon”, everyone was calling it a “revelation”. Nobody believed that somebody could totally embody a role/person as Carrey did. The movie was receiving critical praise from everybody as the rebirth of the “Biopic”. Imagine my suprise when all I saw was a movie that consisted of reenactments of Kaufman’s most famous stunts, with a loose story in between, mostly to bridge the gap from one “happening” to the other. Of course, the inevitable drama in this story eventually came in the prescence of Kaufman’s battle with cancer. Nevertheless, the movie didn’t succeed for me as a whole, because its primary goal wasn’t to give us insight as to what made this person one of the most “enigmatic” performers of his era; it was to remind us of all the cool stuff he did.
That’s exactly how I feel about the new George Clooney movie, “Goodnight and Goodluck”, the story of Edward R. Murrow’s famous on-air battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy. While the movie serves as a timely story about asking tough questions in the face of government/peer pressure to relax and talk about something else, for fear of being labeled unAmerican, it fails to show us any sort of internal confict, any humanizing element of Murrow or his producer Fred Friendly (if that doesn’t sound like a made-up name, I don’t know what does), played by director/co-writer, “Mr.” Clooney, or any emotion at all. Maybe that was a specific choice made by Clooney to amplify Murrow’s stoic and stonefaced nature… to tell the facts like they were and let them speak for themselves, just as Murrow did with McCarthy. This, however, is supposed to be a movie showing us the “epic” battle, shrunk down into an hour and a half. How does the movie accomplish this? Well, considering that nearly all of the confrontation took place on the show, the natural way to show it would be by reenacting it. There’s that word again. I would guess to say that two thirds to three fourths of the screentime is devoted to recreating speeches, television segments, or showing actual file footage of the McCarthy hearings and the Senator’s on-air response to Murrow.
There is very little to the movie other than this. In fact, the bulk of the story outside of these reenactments deals with a husband and wife pair (Robert Downey Jr., and Patricia Clarkson) who work for the show but are keeping their marriage a secret for fear of being let go by the company. The only thing that I could tell that they were there for, as they really didn’t interact with the main two characters at all, was to offer, in a scene in bed, a question as to whether they were doing the right thing in regards to the pieces about McCarthy. I suppose it could be argued that they served to parallel the struggle of in-the-closet Communists, ready to be oppressed at their discovery, but in reality, that’s a stretch. The rest of the staff consists of faceless yesmen who don’t have any objections to doing these pieces, or at least are cowardly enough to have a little fear about their jobs being in jeopardy.
The only other example of conflict/human emotion involved a “troubled” newsanchor (whose “troubled” nature is shown in about 3 scenes total, and again, is only peripherally involved with the story), played by Ray Wise, whose biggest role prior to this was the “troubled” Leland Palmer on “Twin Peaks”… and let’s not forget someone named Randolph Pratt in “The Garbage Picking, Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon” with Tony Danza. He ends up committing suicide because of a single bad newspaper review from a right-wing Hearst newspaper.
I suppose i’m forgetting one other story. The main of these three stories is Murrow’s “Battle” with the network. I tend to forget it as a conflict, because near as I could tell, most of the time it consists of the station chief agreeing with Murrow, and doing all he can to help, even though the sponsors are pulling out. So again, there’s not a ton of conflict there, until the end, when the head honcho expands his show to a full hour but moves it to sunday afternoons, a thing which seems to me to be a fair compromise, but seemed like a defeat and the death of TV to Murrow and Friendly.
So if the story is basically entirely a reenactment of the TV tapes, then why (according to Rotten Tomatoes) did it receive 110 positive reviews and only four negative reviews nationwide?
The acting is brilliant for the most part. By “the most part”, I mean that one person truly dominates the movie and that the rest of the cast are completely serviceable in their minor background roles. David Strathairn, the blind character “Whistler”, from the totally underrated masterpiece “Sneakers”, gives “the performance of a lifetime” as Murrow. Just as Jim Carrey, and Jamie Foxx in “Ray”, and supposedly Joaquin Phoenix in “Walk the Line”, Strathairn completely is enveloped by the character, getting the presence and the speech patterns down to a science.
Clooney’s direction keeps the pace brisk, but the tone somber. His innovative (some may call it “gimmicky”) use of staging and camerawork in his directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”, kept it from being just another story of one of Los Angeles’ minor celebrities who supposedly became a hitman. In “Goodnight and Good Luck”, he creates a smoky, jazzy mood of complete solemnity by removing all the color, shooting in black and white. A jazz singer serves as a segue between the scenes, while cigarette smoke fills nearly every scene. By using the black and white “gimmick”, the visual drama has to come from the sharp contrast between light and shadow, as well as the different focal lengths of the lenses used to distort what the eye would see. An example of this is the way that Strathairn is shot when on air, with the camera uncomfortably close, dark shadows looming from under his eyebrows, and the focus on his face, but out of focus on his ears. In addition, Clooney creates tension not from the action, but on what the reaction to is going to be. Will it be positive? Only history will tell. Oh, right. Well in any case, we’re there wondering, just like in Titanic.
The last thing that makes this movie work is the fact that the source material is interesting to begin with. If we were treated to a story of “September 11th” with an actor playing Peter Jennings broadcasting for 24 hours straight, it would be gripping. It would probably be more interesting to see a movie about McCarthy, but that’s not the point that Clooney wanted to make, which brings me to my final thought.
I saw Clooney on Oprah today, and he claimed that he wasn’t trying to preach anything with this movie, except maybe journalistic responsibility. I don’t pretend to be blinded by his ruse. This movie is as much a parable about our state of affairs today as “The Crucible” was to the actual McCarthy era. There are blatant lines of dialogue referring to holding people without evidence, trying them without letting them see said evidence, and labeling people “communists” (as much a jingoistic phrase as “terrorist” is today) and traitors. I have no problem with his artistic expression, and I commend him for not discussing his politics on television, but don’t lie about it. Like any great work, it’s open to lots of different interpretations and relevancies, and can incite intelligent dialogue. I would rather have him say, just as Murrow said approximately, “I have presented the facts, and the rest is upto you to decide”. The work will stand on its own however, and we’ll see where it ends up come awards season.
I’m a harsh grader, especially when everyone else loves a movie. “Goodnight and Good Luck”, receives 2.5 stars for being nothing more than a well directed and shot, well acted movie that contained nothing more than reenactments of famous television moments and long stretches of file footage. While it presents interesting ideas, it doesn’t do much to discuss them, and there’s suprisingly little humanity presented for a risk that most people would at least have second thoughts about taking, especially the faceless staff members.