Thursday, February 16, 2006

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK – Hagiography makes for bad cinema

QUICK REVIEW: A sadly disappointing and un-involving film about the journalist who took on McCarthy at the height of his anti-communist witch-hunt in the 1950s and won.

LONG REVIEW: George Clooney’s father was an anchorman and his aunt was the lounge singer, Rosemary Clooney. He clearly has a great deal of nostalgia for a “better time” when men wore snappy suits, women wore pearls, couples hung out in cool lounge bars drinking cocktails, and newsreaders were journalists with integrity rather than partisan spin-doctors. This nostalgia is evidenced in his Las Vegas hotel project, which as far as I can tell, aims to re-create the vibe of The Sands in its rat-pack hey-day. It is also evidenced in the choice of subject matter for his second directorial effort: GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK. Clooney tells the story of Edward R. Murrow, CBS anchorman in the 1950s, and according to Clooney, “the high water mark of broadcast journalism.” Murrow started out broadcasting from the rooftops of London during the Blitz, hence his wish for “good luck” in his famous signing out catchphrase and had been at CBS for almost 20 years when he decided to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy. Clooney clearly believes that what the US needs today are independent journalists capable of taking on Bush, corporate malfeasance and the war in Iraq. Murrow should therefore be an icon and an inspiration.

The good stuff: The central performance by David Strathairn is outstanding. He plays Murrow as conceived by Clooney – an icon of journalistic integrity, who never doubts that he is doing the right thing and can do nothing else other than the right thing. We believe in him implicitly. Strathairn has been working for a long time and created memorable characters such as Pierce Patchett in "LA Confidential”, but it is amazing what he does when finally gets a leading role. Strathairn got the Best Actor award at Venice for this role and I will be surprised if he is not nominated for an
Oscar* (although if there is any justice it will go to Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote.) Secondly, Ray Wise (“Twin Peaks”) gives a superb performance as Don Hollonbeck, the CBS newsreader who is being harangued by a McCarthyite columnist for supposedly being a Communist. The music, provided by the wonderful jazz singer Diana Reeves, is also fantastic, but I cannot figure out why it is there other than to assuage Clooney’s fondness for all things Lounge.

The bad stuff: the script. Seriously, Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the script, is inexperienced and it shows. (Inexperience is not always bad, look at the genius script for upcoming “Capote” written by Dan Futterman.) Actually, scratch that, the problem is the entire conception of the movie, and the bad script is just the side-effect. Clooney holds Murrow to be an icon of all that is good and true. He resurrects this icon on screen. We are in no doubt that Murrow is an icon because we get an opening shot of Murrow receiving an industry award for being an icon. His iconic stature is hammered home by beautiful framed scenes in which the camera is in static and loving close-up. This degree of hagiography makes for incredibly un-involving cinema.

Moreover, Clooney is disingenuous about his intentions with the movie. In introducing it at the London Film Festival, he claimed that just wanted to raise questions about the role of the Fourth Estate in society. The film does not raise questions but bludgeons over the head with answers. It is not subtle, it is not hugely original, and it is not unmissable cinema. On balance, this is not a bad movie, but neither is it out-standing. It is hard to see who will gain from seeing it. Clooney isn’t telling the liberal left anything it does not already know and believe, and he is hardly likely to convert the FoxNews audience. And as Roger Ebert nicely put it, how many cinema-goers even know what habeas corpus is, let alone value having it? The fault of this movie is that if you didn’t know or care before you entered the cinema, you still won’t know or care when you leave.

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK is already on nationwide release in the US. It goes on release in France on 5th December 2005 and in the UK on 17th February 2006. I’ll update the German release date when I have it. *This review was originally published in November 2005. I was right - Straithern was nominated for an Oscar - let's see if he gets it!

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