Friday, September 23, 2005

NY film festival opener

Good Night. And, Good Luck

Written and Directed
byGeorge Clooney

Nowadays, when color is sooo much cheaper than it used to be, there has to be a reason for going black & white. There is, and we’ll get to it in a moment, but first, there’s the question of the age of the intended audience.

Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) was censured by the US Senate on December 2, 1954 a little less than fifty-one years ago. That means that everyone who was alive at the time is in middle age, and those who were old enough to still remember watching it on TV live is eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. In other words, to the large majority of the people what happened here is ancient history.

For ancient history, you need context, which is what this film hasn’t got. We start in 1958, and famed journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) is getting an award for his achievements, and he begins his acceptance speech with a scathing attack on Television. It was as easy to attack TV back then as it is today, the only difference being that there were only three networks [Dumont having gone broke], and Color TV had only been just invented, which means that when we flashback to the main action of the film, everything on the tube was in Black and White.

Which is why the rest of the movie is as well. The images on the small screen match the images on the big screen, and everything looks the same. It’s a really nifty conceit. But we really don’t get anything else, like who just WAS Joe McCarthy, and what was so terrible about the Communist menace that the whole country was terrorized?

The beginning of 1954 was a rather good time for CBS news. With production costs lower than most sitcoms and dramas, news documentaries were the crown jewel in the crown of what was called the Tiffany network. Murrow, his producer
Fred Friendly(George Clooney) and boss Sig Mickelson(Jeff Daniels)
Were worried about ratings more than anything else, and when there was a small story about an Army lieutenant named Milo Redulivitch who was given a general discharge because his father and sister were liberals, or possibly worse, the concept of guilt by association rightly shocked CBS into doing an entire prime time TV show on it.

But the show would be controversial and the sponsor had backed out. That’s ONE sponsor. We need to know context, and we don’t get it. The idea that a TV anchorman can actually pay for the airtime of his show instead of commercials is something we can’t imagine. The loyalty oaths and the fact that producer Joe Wershba(Robert Downey, Jr.) and his wife Shirley(Patricia Clarkson) had to keep their marriage a secret are bizarre as well.

While the lack of context may make the film slightly unintelligible for a younger and less history savvy audience, the acting more than makes up for it. Strathairrn has given brilliant performances in countless movies and is one of the hardest working men in the movies, this is one of his few starring roles, and it looks like the Oscar race is going to be between Phillip Seymore Hoffman and him. The supporting cast, from Frank Langella (as CBS president William Paley) on down are all excellent. For context, you should rent a Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” before seeing this….

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