Running Time: 93 mins.
Rated: Rated M.
This is a film which invites its audience to think. It also invites its audience to think about the present in the light of the past, especially the mistakes of the past. When we do not learn the lessons of history, we are condemned to repeat them.
The anti-Communist activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, his hounding of anyone suspected of having Communist links strengthened the atmosphere of fear created soon after the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. The United States turned its back on its wartime ally, the Soviet Union, when the Iron Curtain came down. House Committee hearings on UnAmerican activities were held in the late 1940s and early 1950s which led to the blacklisting of many alleged Communist party members or sympathisers in the public service, the armed forces and the entertainment industry. Playwright Lilian Hellman called this period in American politics 'Scoundrel Time'. Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible' served as an allegory of these witch hunts.
There have been a number of films on this era including a portrait of McCarthy in Tail Gunner Joe with Peter Boyle, of McCarthy's adviser, Roy Cohn in Citizen Cohn with James Woods. Cohn appears in the 1990s critique of the US, Angels in America. The Front and Guilty by Suspicion were films about Hollywood and these times. Journalist and television personality, Edward R. Murrow, was played by Daniel J. Travanti in Murrow. Murrow is now the subject of Goodnight, and Good Luck, which was his signing off phrase for his broadcasts.
This film has been widely acclaimed, David Strathairn winning the Best Actor award in Venice and George Clooney and Grant Heslov winning for Best Screenplay. The film has been directed by Clooney who also appears as Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly.
Good Night and Good Luck has been shot in black and white, symbolic perhaps of the public stances of the times which did not allow for any greys. This enables Clooney to incorporate actual footage of McCarthy and the hearings instead of having an actor play the senator. This footage ends with the famous challenge to McCarthy by judge Joseph Welch, 'Have you no decency, sir?'.
This 90 minute film confines itself to the challenge made by CBS television to McCarthy by Edward R. Murrow. Murrow had built up a reputation for solid and fearless journalism with broadcasts from London during the war. We see his research and legal team at work, the stances of Bill Paley (Frank Langella), head of CBS in the face of political pressure and pressure from the sponsors, Alcoa. We see a television news anchor (Ray Wise) hounded by the conservative press. We see two people on the team (Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr) who conceal their marriage because CBS rules did not allow couples to work for the company. We see Murrow interviewing Liberace and the entertainer answering questions about his hopes for his marriage. We also see Murrow as a heavy smoker and his endorsement of Kent cigarettes. This reminds us that fifty years ago, honesty and concealment were major issues for celebrities in the public eye but smoking was not.
David Strathairn, a reliable actor who has supported many significant films, is most impressive as Murrow, a man of principle, fearless and articulate. His rendition of several of Murrow's broadcasts remind us of how relevant his stances are today, including his statement that dissent does not mean disloyalty.
Directed with passion but control by Clooney, this is a film both to watch and to listen to.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.