Watching The Avengers has had a curious side effect: I suddenly feel the need to look up every movie ever done by anyone in the main cast, particularly Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. And while there are still films I won’t consider watching, no matter how much I like RDJ—say, for instance, something like The Shaggy Dog—a black and white biopic about Edward R. Murrow versus Joseph McCarthy somehow became irresistible.
To probably no one’s surprise at all, it’s pretty good.
Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) is a news anchor in the 1950’s who takes on Joseph McCarthy in a time where even the slightest voice of dissent could cause you and your loved ones to be labelled Communists.
1. Good Night, and Good Luck uses a lot of actual clips and news reels from the McCarthy era, and I mostly like this except for when I don’t. The film is shot in black and white and is edited seamlessly together with the real footage, so that the whole movie almost seems like one large documentary. Considering the setting and subject matter, I absolutely love this docudrama feel. I also like that we get to see Joseph McCarthy as he really was—instead of an interpretation, the madness actually speaks for itself. This film is streamlined to focus on the task at hand and take out as much extraneous material as possible.
That being said, I’m not sure if the film isn’t streamlined just a bit too much. Good Night, and Good Luck is barely an hour and a half long, and that’s including the clips and musical interludes. While I love that this story isn’t bloated with a ton of melodramatic and unnecessary sentimentality, these are interesting people being portrayed by a very talented cast, and even ten more minutes of time for characterization or plot might have balanced this movie just a bit more for me.
2. Speaking of a talented cast, massive props have to go to David Straitharn.
I wasn’t exactly around to watch Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts when he originally gave them, but I’ve since watched a few clips on youtube, and I think Straitharn really nails that delivery. His diction is so perfectly clear and precise. There’s an elegance to his performance, a class, and while some of that is dialogue—oh, these speeches—a lot of it is just how Staitharn carries himself, how he speaks, his elocution. In a way, I’m a touch envious, not so much because of my own failings—I’ve more or less grown accustomed to my sloppy enunciation—but because it’s hard to think of a lot of news anchors that are allowed to speak so intelligently. So often the news seems like a daytime talk show now, like a performance where the man with the reddest face and the biggest lie wins. It’s about yelling, not dignity. There’s no dividing line between bias and opinion. It’s hard not to watch this movie and think that journalism is dead.
In any case, David Straitharn earned his Oscar nod here. And the rest of cast is very good as well. I so rarely see George Clooney in a supporting role, but he’s great here as Fred Friendly, the show’s co-producer. He and Straitharn have a very nice, easy rapport, and I liked watching all of their scenes together. I also really enjoyed Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as Joseph and Shirley Wershaba, two reporters who are secretly married to one another. They have a nice chemistry too, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of them—although I don’t know if the story actually calls for more scenes. I just really like the actors.
3. Ray Wise is also in Good Night, and Good Luck, and this needs to be recorded because it’s a rather astounding moment in cinematic history: he does not play a villain and/or a total schmuck.
I’m sure he’s a very nice person in real life, but Ray Wise almost always seems to be a bad guy or a jerk on screen. This makes for a pleasant change. Good for you, Ray Wise!
4. And my God, the words. The words in this movie! The broadcasts are, of course, actually Murrow’s speeches from the past, but they are just so beautifully delivered here. And I like the rest of the dialogue too. A few favorites:
“We must not confuse dissent from disloyalty. We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. ” – Edward R. Murrow
“I’ve searched my conscience, and I can’t for the life of me find any justification for this, and I simply cannot accept that there are on every story two equal and logical sides to an argument.” – Edward R. Murrow
“There’s no news, boys, so go out there and make some news. Rob a bank, mug an old lady, whatever – just do something.” – Fred Friendly
“Go after Joe Kennedy. I’ll pay you for that.” – Sig Mickelson
“We cannot defend freedom abroad if we’re deserting it at home.” -Edward R. Murrow
“It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Our history will be what we make it.” -Edward R. Murrow
5. Honestly, I don’t have a lot else to say about this film, other than it’s strange how relevant the subject material is today. Thankfully, communist isn’t quite the dirty word that it once was, and whatever your politics are, I think we can all agree that no one in power in the US is currently leading a government mandated witch hunt on this scale. That being said, there is this whole weird thing in American politics where if you do voice dissent with any particular system, you’re in danger of being considered unpatriotic. Patriotism is like a war cry here. “I think so and so because I love my country! And if you don’t agree, then you hate America!”
And the news is still facing this issue of what you can say, what you can’t, what is fair, what is biased, what is the difference between an educated opinion and a downright lie. What consequences might you suffer for saying what you actually mean? Do you have a duty to report the news as you see it, and when does that duty become a crusade? We’ve made a lot of progress in half a century in civil liberties and equal rights, but in this, at least, we’ve made very little . . . and have probably even deevolved.
Strong film with a solid cast. Not preachy and overwrought. Possibly a little too short.
Sometimes, you have a duty to speak up.