The word “respectable” in a film review is often a double-edged sword. Often, it doesn’t so much mean “good” as “good try.” In other words, the subject matter is worthy, the participants are all competent, so even if the result isn’t magical, the pedigree of people involved demands some level of respect. Such is the case of George Clooney’s latest project, the McCarthy-era drama Good Night, and Good Luck. The story deals with famed CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his head-to-head media battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by himself—McCarthy only appears in real-life stock news footage) over the House on Un-American Activities Committee and its persecutory reign of terror in the 1950’s.
Clooney has assembled a terrific cast here and their work is solid all around. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean the story they are portraying is very interesting. Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey, Jr. are two of America’s finest actors, but even their combined talents can’t bring much life to a romantic subplot that has virtually nothing to do with the story at hand. Jeff Daniels, who seems to be turning into a better actor the older and doughier he gets, has almost nothing to do as one of the studio higher-ups. Frank Langella brings some heat to his small part as the head of CBS and Clooney himself punches in for some credible supporting work as Fred Friendly, Murrow’s news partner in crime. Strathairn is completely believable as the hard-edged newshound; he is a tower of strength throughout. This reverential approach backfires on Clooney because he never lets us see any cracks in Murrow’s façade. He’s like Superman with a pack of Lucky Strikes (Murrow was a notorious chain smoker). The character consistently threatens to become cold and self-righteous, which no doubt was the exact opposite of Clooney’s intent. Strathairn is a good actor, and he has shown more range in supporting roles in films like A Map of the World than he does here.
As a filmmaker, Clooney exhibits some growth since his first outing as director, 2002’s messy and pointless Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The black and white photography is ideal for recreating Eisenhower-era America and Clooney clearly has affection for American newsmen. Artistically, however, Clooney still needs work. The film is only 90 minutes long, yet it feels draggy and more than a little dry. Clooney puts jazz chanteuse Dianne Reeves to good use as a bridging device, marvelously singing a variety of old standards (her version of “One More for the Road” is worth sitting through the end credits). Yet, even in these scenes, Clooney fails to advance the action of the story. Instead of crosscutting to scenes advancing the Murrow plot, the camera lingers lovingly on Reeves, making her contribution seem like intermission entertainment.
As a writer, Clooney (who co-wrote the screenplay) doesn’t bring enough fire to the story and the film does not build to a recognizable climax. Tellingly, the most interesting scenes in the movie are the real-life newsreels from the HUAC trials. They are easily more compelling than any of the material Clooney has come up with. So, the question remains, why did this unexceptional film get six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay?
First of all, Hollywood loves to reward actors who turn into directors, sometimes rightfully so (Clint Eastwood won last year for Million Dollar Baby, Robert Redford was 1980’s Best Director for the exceptional Ordinary People), sometimes not (Mel Gibson for Braveheart, really?). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Clooney is preaching to the choir here. Many Hollywood lives and careers were destroyed by the McCarthy witch hunts, so it only makes sense that the Academy would want to reward a film biography of someone who dared to oppose him. The history presented here is interesting and the film comes to life at times, but all too often it feels like a stale history lesson, with Strathairn as the humorless schoolmaster. The fact that this film won’t win any of the awards it is nominated for only underscores why it shouldn’t have been nominated in the first place. It’s a shame the Oscars don’t have a Best Intentions category, because Good Night, and Good Luck would fit perfectly.
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