It’s quite difficult to take on current political issues in film and have the left and right sides of the theater both exit with smiles.
However, the adage that history repeats itself makes the task a little easier. By showing the faults of the past, a filmmaker can avoid preaching about hot-button issues while still having ideas resonate with the audience, hopefully forcing them to think about today.
With “Good Night and Good Luck,” megastar George Clooney has done just that.
The year is 1953, and McCarthyism is in full swing.
Edward Murrow (David Strathairn) is the acclaimed journalist and face of the CBS news program “See It Now.” After Murrow and the other reporters are forced to sign loyalty oaths to the U.S., it opens some eyes around the newsroom.
Eventually, Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) decide to break the trend of soft reporting on McCarthy’s tactics and go right after him.
Immediately, they receive criticism from the network, sponsors and the government. Murrow is initially banished to covering person-to-person fluff pieces with stars like Liberace and Mickey Rooney. But the courageous journalists continue to fight, despite fear of being labeled communists themselves.
McCarthy, who is only shown in archival footage from the ‘50s, eventually comes on the show to give his rebuttal, and the battleground of McCarthy vs. the world is set.
Clooney’s decision to take on McCarthy as Murrow did — “in his own words” — is a brilliant one. While an actor may have increased the drama by giving the filmmakers more scene options, they cannot be accused of trying to show McCarthy in a negative light. They show him how McCarthy chose to light himself.
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was impressive for Clooney as a first-time director, and he handles Murrow’s story with equal skill and grace. The black-and-white smoke-filled frames, along with the archival footage — including a hilarious cigarette advert — transport the audience back to the ‘50s.
The acting, especially from Strathairn, was top notch. While Phillip Seymour Hoffman has gotten more buzz for his turn in “Capote,” there could be two journalists competing for an Oscar next year. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson also make their smaller roles memorable.
The real brilliance here, though, is how the filmmakers tackle politics and the media without preaching or offending. It’s a simple point that Clooney and company make: Journalists should be better. They should ask more questions and challenge power, and they should be brought to task when they don’t.
When it seemed like it was impossible for anyone to speak up, Murrow did, and everyone listened.