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See it now -- again 

click to enlarge David Strathairn stars as Edward R. Murrow.
  • David Strathairn stars as Edward R. Murrow.

*Good Night, and Good Luck. (PG)
Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown

Filmed in gritty but handsome black-and-white and directed by George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck. shines a light on television's power to expose evil, and television networks' ultimate failure to sustain that challenge.

The son of a Cincinnati television anchorman and a confessed news junkie, Clooney tells the story of one of America's great newsmen, Edward R. Murrow, with control and economy, bringing in this little jewel of a film at under $8 million.

David Strathairn, a generally overlooked (perhaps because nobody can pronounce his last name?), superb character actor, gets the role of his career in Murrow, a journalist whose 1940s radio broadcasts from London brought him fame and a regular gig on CBS, a 1950s news show called "See It Now."

When Sen. Joseph McCarthy began holding Senate hearings that turned into a witch hunt, ruining the lives of Americans labeled as traitors and Communists, Murrow took issue and decided to challenge McCarthy on network TV.

Supported by his producer, Fred Friendly (played by Clooney), and initially by network boss William Paley (Frank Langella), he launched a strong attack on McCarthy and his methods, despite driving off the show's major advertising sponsor, Alcoa. Eventually, McCarthy was dethroned by Murrow's exposure of his methods, and Murrow, for his efforts, was demoted to a Sunday afternoon time slot.

The film focuses on this brief on-air duel, using archival footage of McCarthy effectively. The sweaty senator practically spits his rage. Back at the newsroom, the story is set in smoke-filled rooms and mazes of hallways and studio sets. So intense is the concentration inside the CBS building, the overall effect is nearly claustrophobic.

The only scenes outside the offices are concerned with a subplot that barely works: Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as a couple who have to hide the fact that they're married, so they don't get canned from CBS. The assumption is that they carry on the masquerade because it's so important for them to be working alongside Murrow, but it's awkwardly communicated and doesn't add much to the main plot of the film.

More effective is a second subplot involving Don Hollenbeck, played with sad intensity by Ray Wise, a New York affiliate anchorman who is accused of being Red and eventually kills himself.

One strong early scene foreshadows Hollenbeck's fall. In yet another smoke-filled news meeting, Friendly advises his staff to let him know whether anyone has any contacts with the Communist party that McCarthy might be able to use as counter-ammunition. Murrow sits in the corner and watches darkly as an associate excuses himself from the project because his former spouse attended meetings a decade earlier. They have to do the story, Murrow tells his colleagues, because "the terror is in this room."

Strathairn's Murrow exudes a quiet, smoldering authority. He captures Murrow's intellect and passion with dark eyes and an unflinching jaw. Beyond the camera, he quietly broods, thinks, smokes and writes. In front of it, he comes to life, delivering monologues that have rightly earned a place in American history.

The central story is bookended by a speech Murrow gave to an industry convention in 1958, lambasting broadcasters for using television as a means to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate" rather than elevate democracy. That the speech so readily applies to today's television standards is not lost on a contemporary audience, hungry for substantive news in times that challenge fundamental American liberties.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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