Oscar Vault Monday – Good Night, and Good Luck., 2005 (dir. George Clooney)
I remember seeing this film in theatres when I was in college and being completely blown away by it. I watched it again with my mother a few years later, but I don’t think I’d seen it in close to five years before rewatching it last night. I forgot how simple and elegantly orchestrated it is. It’s an ensemble, but you never get lost in a sea of characters, nor do you truly get invested in most of them. I don’t mean that as an insult, though. The ensemble works as one to fight the system and topple Senator McCarthy with his own words (more on that later). The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor David Strathairn, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Munich and winner Crash.
Apparently George Clooney was paid exactly $1 each as his fee for writing, directing and acting Good Night, and Good Luck., also, due to an injury he suffered while filing Syriana (for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that same year), he had to mortgage his own house in order to get the film production off the ground. All this paid off, as the $7.5 mil film wound up grossing around $54 mil worldwide. With his recent Best Picture win for Argo, George Clooney now has two Oscars and is the only person to be nominated in six different categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay), beating the record of Walt Disney (who was nominated for Best Picture, Best Documentary, Best Animated Short, Best Documentary Short and Best Live Acton Short).
The film uses a frame narrative, beginning the story at a 1958 gathering of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. Glasses clink, people are having a good time. Then Murrow is introduced, and he begins a speech on the importance of television as a medium for educating the public. The film then transitions to 1953, at the height of the “red scare.”
When we first see Murrow, he is in the shadows. A serious man, with a weighty message to give. I think it’s interesting that Clooney chose to introduce the film’s protagonist by not actually showing you his face. This, I think, is partially as a way of insinuating that Murrow was a man, like everyone else, and that it was his actions that are the thing.
The main action in 1953 begins with a short prologue summing up the situation in which the film finds itself. On a production note level, this elevator scene was done by having the actress walk in from one set, then that set was turned and when the doors opened, another set aka another floor was unveiled. The filmmakers took a little liberty with the layout of CBS in the 1950s, having all of the main sets on separate floors in the same building. In reality, the CBS executive offices, CBS newsroom and the set of the Murrow-hosted show See It Now were located in three different buildings.
I think David Strathairn is so amazing in this role. For a lot of the film going public even now Strathairn is one of those “that guy” actors, where you recognize his face, but you don’t know his name. He’s always good (see most recently Lincoln), but here he goes above and beyond. This is one of those absolutely perfect players meets the perfect part. Murrow was an important man who was doing the right job at the right time, but the film doesn’t deify him. He’s not a perfect man and he makes mistakes (some with dire consequences). He’s also a man who plays the game, hosting his political show See It Now, as well as the talk show-like Person To Person. As of now, this role has garnered Strathairn’s only Oscar nomination.
I already wrote quite a bit about George Clooney’s participation in this film, but I’ll also add that part of his interest in this subject was his father’s occupation as a television newsman during the same era (George himself also studied journalism in college). I also love that Clooney was still carrying some of the weight he gained for Syriana. Clooney plays Murrow’s co-producer Fred Friendly, who backs Murrow when he decides to go after McCarthy.
This was an important step in the career rehabilitation of Robert Downey Jr. He does an excellent job as news writer Wershba. It’s one of Downey’s most subtle performances for sure, but at times there is so much emotion in his eyes, it kills me. As you probably know, RDJ was nominated for Best Actor for his work in the 1992 biopic Chaplin and Best Supporting Actor for 2008’s Tropic Thunder.
Patricia Clarkson dazzles as Wershba’s secret wife Shirley. You should look her u; she was an amazing lady. The two had to keep their marriage a secret due to CBS regulations at the time. This subplot highlights the film’s main theme about secrecy and unfair persecution. Clarkson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 2003’s Pieces of April.
Jeff Daniels plays the director CBS ‘s news division. He’s got a small, but pivotal role, doing his best to keep the bosses above him happy, while running the stories he knows deserve airtime. His last scene with Clarkson and Downey is so wonderfully bittersweet. Despite almost consistently great work for nearly thirty years, Daniels has yet to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Frank Langella plays chief executive of CBS William Paley. This is a tough role because he is the head of everything and he’s the one who knows the money-crunching numbers of all his network’s shows. He knows that what Murrow is doing could bury his company. I like his portrayal in this film because he’s seen in various shades off grey; he’s not a bad guy, but you can’t really call him a good guy either. Langella was nominated for Best Actor for his work in 2008’s Frost/Nixon.
One of my favorite performances in this film is Ray Wise as CBS anchor Don Hollenbeck. It’s a tragic little performance and I’m not really sure if it does the real man justice, but Wise’s broken version of Hollenbeck breaks my heart. Wise is probably best remembered as Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks.
Shout out to Alex Borstein as one of the many women shown helping run the newsroom. You usually think of the 1950s as an era of newsman in their suits. But Clooney includes some great female characters who are most clearly the reason the newsroom runs as smoothly as it does.
Another shout out to Tate Donovan, possibly best known as Jimmy Cooper from The O.C. Donovan, Clooney and writer/producer Grant Heslov have all been friends for over thirty years and you will see them all pop up in each other’s films often.
Speaking of Grant Heslov, I first really loved him in True Lies – he plays the “other guy in the van” aka not Tom Arnold. He’s great in that film, I promise. On the DVD commentary Clooney says that shortly after he met Heslov in 1982, Heslov loaned Clooney $200.00 to buy his first set of headshots, and they have been friends ever since. That just warms my heart with joy. Heslov co-wrote this film with Clooney, is credited as sole producer and has a cameo as See It Now director Don Hewitt. Heslov, along with Clooney and Ben Affleck, received the Oscar for Best Picture in February for Argo. He received two Oscar nominations for Good Night, and Good Luck. for his work as producer (aka Best Picture) and for co-writing with Clooney (Best Original Screenplay), he also shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination with Clooney and Beau Willimon for their work on 2011’s The Ides of March.
The film includes jazz musical interludes by Dianne Reeves, who is shown recorded torch songs throughout the film. Reeves won a Grammy Award for her jazz album from this film.
The filmmakers include a lot of archive footage, which is seamlessly incorporated into the film. The film was shot on color film stock with a grayscale set and then color corrected in order to be black and white like the footage used.
The Joseph McCarthy who appears in the is the real McCarthy thought the magic of archive footage. Apparently, one test audience said that the actor playing McCarthy was too over-the-top, unaware that what they were seeing was the real man in all his infamy.
Also included via archive footage is Liberace, as a guest on Person To Person. Murrow asks him about whether he is going to marry anytime soon. The answer he gives is utterly heartbreaking, if you know (and you should know!) the real story of Liberace. Much like the Wershba’s subplot, the inclusion of this Liberace interview again highlights the theme of the film.
We also get these lovely old school advertisements during the on air segments of the film. Remember when cigarettes could not only be on television, but they were the main advertisers? I don’t, I am too young. But I’m sure many of you do. My, how times have changed.
The recreation of the CBS news studio – all on a sound stage – is really quite wonderful. The art directors lost the Oscar to Memoirs of a Geisha (it won cinematography, too).
Just look at that shot! Who would guess that was on a soundstage?! And let’s not even forget how telling this shot is from a story level. Here is Murrow, waiting to be chastised by the bigwigs upstairs, he’s small and unimportant, but he’s busy doing his job, undeterred.
Another great shot after Friendly and Murrow’s last meeting with Paley. Accusations are fired, harsh words are said, but when all is said and done, these two men know what they did was the right thing.
Murrow gives two final speeches in the film. One in 1953, on air, that goes like this:
No one familiar with the history of this country, can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating. But the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the Junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak, and to defend the causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Sen. McCarthy’s methods to keep silent or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world. But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his, he didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right, the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night, and good luck.
The other, back in 1958, goes like this:
It is my desire if not my duty to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening in radio and television, and if what I say is responsible, I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Our history will be what we make of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred year from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes of one week of all three networks, they will there find, recorded in black and white and in color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information; our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses, and recognize that television, in the main, is being use to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture, too late.
Posted on April 8, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 2005, Alex Borstein, David Strathairn, Dianne Reeves, Frank Langella, George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck., Grant Heslov, Jeff Daniels, Joseph McCarthy, Liberace, Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, Robert Downey Jr., Tate Donovan. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.