In 1953, Arthur Miller wrote a play about the 1692 Salem witch trials and drew strong, negative parallels to McCarthyism. In 2005, George Clooney and Grant Heslov fashioned a screenplay that also challenges a contemporary situation, this time using the McCarthy era as an allegory for what now faces today's news broadcasters. David Strathairn anchors the film as Edward R. Murrow, who took on Senator Joe McCarthy publically and was instrumental in exposing his devious tactics.
Good Night, and Good Luck is the story about a relationship. What it interesting about that is that the relationship is not between two characters that ever meet on the screen. It is about the relationship of a man - that is McCarthy - and a country. Every element of the film is somehow related to how McCarthy's Communist witch hunts permeated society and made the press and public complicit with the persecution of those who came under suspicion.
Photographed in sharp black and white by Robert Elswit and with snappy direction from Clooney, the film manages to build tension through the situation and performances honestly. This is not an intimate film, there are no soul-searching speeches or impassioned railing. Instead, the film keep the tone subdued and any editorializing is done through utilizing Edward R. Murrow's actual broadcasted text. In a stroke of great postmodernist importance, while actual kinescope footage of McCarthy is used in the film, test audiences thought that it was an actor who was chewing up scenery. Strathairn delivers Murrow's literate verse with authority, making one forget that the real Murrow actually looked like this:
The rest of the cast is similarly superb, with Clooney appearing as producer Fred Friendly and Frank Langella as CBS President William Paley. Ray (Leland Palmer) Wise plays Don Hollenbeck, which is oddly fitting. Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson and Jeff Daniels also appear, and the film is punctuated by interludes in which Dianne Reeves sings jazz hits of the era with Rosemary Clooney's band. There is no part of this production that is not as solid as they come. The sets and photography transport you into the era, and the monochrome textures are luminous. Furthermore, the black and white images allow for a more seamless integration of the kinescope footage.
Clooney has eschewed all of the delerious showmanship that marked Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and has instead created a film that, with the exception of some mild swearing, may well have been created contemporary with its subject matter. But he is also looking not just at a dark time in American history, but, as the framing device of Murrow delivering his 1959 speech cautioning his peers about the dangers of using television exclusively for entertainment illustrates, an even darker time unfolding before us. By placing Murrow's warning so close to one of his greatest achievements as a newsperson, it is by extension a scathing swipe at the current media for not having any balls.
This is a beautifully crafted film with outstanding performances and an intelligent but gripping narrative. I enjoyed it very much.
Of course, when you go to an art film theater, which Raz and I did to see Good Night, and Good Luck, you end up seeing ART FILM TRAILERS. Now, the thing about it is that while the great (dubious) art of the Hollywood trailer has reached an amazing new height of obnoxious hype, the ART FILM TRAILER has remained virtually unevolved over the past twenty years. Period romance trailers have a few pithy lines and a bouncy orchestral score. Contemporary dramas take as much "cutting edge" footage they can find in the film and put it together, often clumsily. And either one can suddenly burst into some Baroque piece, either Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos or Pachelbel's Canon.
Foreign film trailers, though, are the worst. Because there is some unwritten rule about trailers that nothing can be subtitled, they always avoid having any spoken dialogue in the trailer, and there is always some vague narration that doesn't really tell you anything. So you can go through an entire trailer not having a single clue as to what the film is about. Of course, there may be a line spoken in English in the film, which means that they have to include that line (I guess that implies to somebody that the film won't be subtitled or something?) regardless of what it has to do with the movie, which you have no idea what is about anyway. They also sometimes burst out with something baroque.
No, while there is a mind-numbing excitement that greets a Hollywood trailer with its big sound and "gotta show you the money" attitude (they make 65% of all movies unnecessary to see), the ART FILM TRAILER is a stuck in a weird limbo. Often stuck with the prospect of promoting a film that doesn't fit into an easily promoted genre, the ART FILM TRAILER nevertheless tries to be as commercial as possible. ART FILM TRAILERS are usually only shown before art films anyway, so its not like it really has to be convincing that much of a reluctant audience. Why not just make a trailer that showcases the appeal of the film? I mean, isn't that what a trailer is supposed to do?
A note about my terminology:
I am not using the term 'independent,' because that term has no meaning anymore. I am instead using the term 'art film' to describe anything other than standard in- every- theater Hollywood product. Whether it is a lower budget studio picture (usually produced through a substudio), a genuinely independent production (are there any of these anymore?), or a foreign film, it is generally for a certain niche audience, and I am using that market as a means to describe the general status of the film. Given that all of these things tend to be lumped together by art film houses anyway, I feel somewhat justified in doing so.