Sunday, November 27, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

Last night, P-Doug called me up and spoke in the most glowing terms of the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. Set in the early 1950s, filmed unself-consciously in black and white, it's the story of Edward R. Murrow taking on the Orwellian excesses of the day in the form of the irresponsible Senator Joe McCarthy. While this film is largely George Clooney's baby (directed and co-written by him), he himself takes a supporting role in the movie, and leaves the plum assignment to David Strathairn. I must confess to being largely unaware of Strathairn's work, with the notable exception of his role as Pierce Patchet in L.A. Confidential, among my favourite movies.

Murrow is played by Strathairn with acid dryness, which gives an edge to what is a clear underlying humanity, and counterpoints what might even be called a certain sentimentality. One of the delights of the movie is the quick wit, which never seems forced or unbelievable. Early on, when discussing the potential loss of $3000 worth of ad revenue with a management figure played by (I believe) Jeff Daniels, Murrow offers to pay the loss himself, splitting it with Fred Friendly (Clooney's character). Murrow lays it on a bit thick, saying something to the effect that "Fred's kids will just have to do without Christmas presents this year." This is met with the rejoinder, "He's a Jew...", which Murrow instantly counters with, "Well, don't tell Fred; he loves Christmas." The audience I was in appreciated this rapid-fire give-and-take, all at once arid but good-natured, as the best comedy is.

Not that the movie is a comedy. Anything but. It's a deadly serious examination of a moment in history chracterized by a paranoia all too familar to us in the post-9/11 world. Back then, it was taking shortcuts with civil liberties in the name of rooting out communism at home; today, the bogeyman is terrorism, but the methods, the means, and the slogans have a chillingly familiarity, the same absolutism of schoolyard persecution. The movie is filmed in black and white, but it is really concerned with the shades of grey that democracy is supposed to be all about.

Putting aside the metaphoric aspect of chosing monochrome, the practical upshot of filming in black and white is to lend a strange, anachronistic immediacy to the film. Senator McCarthy, who appears in the movie only in film bites (including a slimy 'rebuttal' to a piece by Murrow that he uses not to address the points raised but to cast aspersions on Murrow and his colleagues), suddenly becomes a visceral presence, rather than monster dead nearly fifty years.

The movie, though following events from 1953 to 1954, is enveloped by an occasion in October, 1958, in which Murrow is being honoured for his work. In addressing the audience, he happens to remark that how television takes its responsibilities will be noted by historians in "fifty or a hundred years", making the viewer acutely aware of being at the middle point of that gulf. In 1954, civil liberties under attack in the name of national security had Murrow as their champion. One is left with the distinct feeling that the recent slide has gone even further, with no similarly daring quixotic defender in sight. The insertion of a televised quote of President Eisenhower near the end of the movie is subtle, but its message is clear; its application seemingly far more timely now than it was at the time it was made:

"Why are we proud? We are proud, first of all, because from the beginning of this nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend or his enemy; and he does not feel that because that enemy may be in a position of great power that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it."

No comments: