George Clooney has to be, if not the most talented guy in Hollywood, certainly the luckiest. A former Sexiest Man Alive, according to People magazine, scion of a wealthy show business clan, a tv star, a movie star, and now a successful director. His first film, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, on wacky tv game show host Chuck Barris’s fantasies, was a sober look at a mentally disturbed man, much better than highly lauded screenwriter and director Paul Schrader’s similar Auto Focus, on tv star Bob Crane’s descent into pornography. But, we’ve all seen this before- a big star thinks he can make films, makes a first film that is lauded- think Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, and on and on, and then starts pumping out sheer dreck.
Well, scratch that with Clooney, who also wrote the film with his producer Grant Heslov. His second film, Good Night, And Good Luck, which tracked CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s 1953-1954 battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he belittles backhandedly as ‘the Junior Senator from Wisconsin’, and his own network, deserved all the accolades it got in its Academy Award nomination. Of course, its nomination was for its political stance, and the relevance to the civil and human rights abuses going on today, in the failed War On Terror, but just because it got recognized for the wrong reasons does not mean it’s not a worthy film.
What separates Clooney, in his first two films, from the above named actors, is that he is simply not content to tell a straightforward story. In both films he uses different filmic techniques, frames scenes in different ways- in this film letting the camera be a static fly on the wall, and generally shows that he knows what to do behind a camera, as well as in front of one. Several things show why this works. First off, Clooney and his cinematographer Robert Elswit (Magnolia) shoot the film in black and white, which always lends an ‘old’, historic feel to a film. Secondly, he makes the audacious choice to use footage of the real Senator McCarthy and his victims, rather than using actors. In doing so, we see how truly deranged and maniacal McCarthy was. Latter day apologists try to insist he wasn’t as bad as all that, and that there were real communists in the government.
This is all true, but they were never a threat, merely a convenient scapegoat, and McCarthy’s many false accusations and smears allowed the handful of real threats to later get off by claiming McCarthyist tactics were used against them. McCarthy falsified records, lied, claimed he had proof he never revealed, harassed people, never produced their accusers, practiced cowardice in the name of patriotism, and tried to suspend the writ of habeas corpus (ala Guantanamo Bay). The Left, especially in Academia, has much to answer for in its support of Stalin and Mao, and their regimes which murdered manifold more people than the Nazis, but the average laborer/fellow traveler merely saw The Party as a refuge from the vile practices of Big Capitalism at its worst. To equate a few rabble rousers with a plot to enslave the nation is to blur all colors between black and white, and like trying to make the case that David Duke was as great a threat to world peace as Hitler. This was why a Communist sympathizer like Alger Hiss was found guilty and sent to jail on a technical perjury, barely related to the treasonous crimes Richard Nixon accused him of, and which history has exculpated him for, yet is viewed as if he passed on atomic secrets like Julius Rosenberg. And it was in this gross conflation and addle-minded simplification that we see that the true threat to freedom was in the lying, manipulating, and fulminating madness of McCarthy, amply captured on film, and nicely left undiluted by Clooney, so that ‘selective editing’ charges are baseless.
The tale is short but true. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), had had enough of the witch hunt mentality, and simply exposed McCarthy, by showing his fulminations in their naked evil. Both were later effectively neutered by CBS honcho William Paley (Frank Langella). But, the bulk of this film plays out almost as a political chamber drama, framed by the brilliant words of Murrow, himself. The film opens and closes with his remarks at a 1958 Radio And Television News Directors Association dinner honoring his work, called A Salute to Edward R. Murrow. There, Murrow ripped those in television for accepting the easy way out, making too much money doing its worst to do its best, by producing schlock rather than high quality programs, ‘Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.’ In between we see the aforementioned saga unfold.
The film just misses greatness because Clooney makes a few errors. First, he has a pointless side story about a married couple (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) at CBS that violate the company rule against married employees, then he has a subplot about a man, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), McCarthy drives to suicide (done in Martin Ritt’s Woody Allen starring film The Front, with Zero Mostel’s character), and finally the film’s soundtrack is a bit weak, with a jazz score that seems inapt to the gravity of the situation. But, these are all minor demerits. The use of classic 1950s commercials and footage more than makes up for those weaknesses, and really gives a claustrophobic feel, at times, that only heightens the drama, the outcome of which, is known. Yet, this fact does not lessen the intensity because Clooney gives a great performance, and Strathairn, as Murrow, is simply brilliant. It is a testament to his brilliance (mostly unseen in small, independent films, such as those by John Sayles) that this great performance is almost routine in his canon. As brilliant as Phillip Seymour Hoffman was in Capote, as the lead character, I think this performance may have been better, because Murrow has the dual task of not aping a known quantity, but also invigorating the real man for a new generation. Strathairn plays Murrow as aggressive, haunted, and he nails the inimitable Murrow cadences, knowing that less someone talks the more power what they say has.
Having now seen all five films that were up for the Best Picture Oscar, I can state that this film is a shade better than Capote, with Walk The Line merely a passable biopic, and the top two films, Crash and Brokeback Mountain, being laughably PC horror screeds. Of course, there were films like Match Point and The New World that were better still, but que sera sera. The commentary, by Clooney and Heslov, is standard issue, with much clowning around by Clooney, and there’s only a trailer and a small featurette. Yet, as with Murrow, the man, this film is not about frills, but about substance. Both deliver exceptionally well.