As a lifelong news junkie, I think of Edward R. Murrow as a divinity. I don’t feel all that strongly about George Clooney one way or another, but I was interested to see what he would do as a director. (I have always meant to see his directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), so I have just added that title to my Netflix queue.)
There is plenty of cigarette smoke artistically curling around in black and white, but not enough depth in exploring the story of Murrow’s See It Now report on Senator Joseph McCarthy, the personalities that produced it, or its effect on the nation. These fundamentals are mostly alluded to, rather than presented directly. The film lingers instead on set and costume details, so that we’re staring at clock faces, horn-rimmed glasses, and Brylcreemed haircuts while dialogue about communist associations and viewer reaction is deposited nearby. Something tense and momentous seems to be going on both inside and outside the CBS studios, judging by all the glances, gulps, and flinches, but we never quite connect with it.
One example: According to the Wikipedia entry on Murrow,
The broadcast provoked tens of thousands of letters, telegrams and phone calls to CBS headquarters, running 15 to 1 in favor of Murrow. In a Murrow retrospective produced by CBS for the A&E Network series Biography, Friendly noted how truck drivers pulled up to Murrow on the street in subsequent days and shouted “Good show, Ed. Good show, Ed.”
In Good Night and Good Luck, we hear the statistic but we never see the contact. In fact we never see Murrow interacting at all with the world beyond his workplace, except through video monitors.
David Strathairn was nominated for his role as Ed Murrow. Strathairn has been a very good actor for many years, and he turns in excellent work with the part he is given, but too much of it is smoking and clock-watching and appearing nervous before delivering crisp bursts of Murrow’s matter-of-fact analysis, which he does brilliantly. However, the majority of Murrow’s words in this movie are the ones scripted for public speaking. We see too little of the off-air man.
Oddly, Joseph McCarthy is portrayed entirely by himself in this movie, via lengthy clips from his hearings and his televised rebuttal to Murrow’s report. This is just too easy and cheap, saving any expense involved in recreating the hearings. Either you’re going to make a real motion picture, or you’re going to make a newsreel documentary for the History Channel. Good Night and Good Luck drifts back and forth across both lanes.
Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson share an extremely thin subplot, Frank Langella is a weird choice to portray William S. Paley and, as Fred Friendly, George Clooney seems almost exactly like George Clooney. There are also numerous scene transitions featuring jazz singer Diane Reeves singing standards which underscore the plot, but while she is a wonderful vocal talent, she is not otherwise a part of the movie and it’s strange to go back to her so many times.
Overall, the art direction and cinematography are very well done, David Strathairn gives a great performance, and George Clooney should be commended for an ambitious attempt that unfortunately falls short in its storytelling.
My Netflix rating is a neutral 3 out of 5.