A post from the world of film.

*Getting around to some movies, finally. I almost can’t believe I actually saw that which I’m about to review - it was playing at the local shoebox art house theater for roughly a month, which is quite lavish for something in such a limited space, and yet I never got around to seeing it. In a way I’m glad, since now I got to check it out on a big screen.

So, for any of you who care to comment, if I was going to push hard for a movie to go see this weekend, should it be Brokeback Mountain, The New World, or Match Point? I’m actually leaning toward The New World, as I get the dual feelings that it’s both going to work best on a big screen, and not be around for very long.

Good Night, and Good Luck.

I really enjoyed how the title of the film is explicitly a statement, complete with a period at the end. It fits the stance of the film well - I’d like to call it a ‘character drama,’ except I realize upon reflection that we really know very little about the characters therein after the credits have rolled. Oh yes, we know Edward R. Murrow was an erudite, studiously principled fellow. Not above the occasional joke, a lover of a fine cigarette (and good god does this film glamorize smoking like nothing I’ve seen in years!), and apparently possessed of a potent charisma that flowed off his camera-lit skin and saturated the entirety of the CBS News team of the early 1950’s. Yes, that’s what we’re told. But it’s not that he has an outside life or anything. It’s not that he emerges as something more complex than a sort of folk hero, the b&w texture of the screen massaging actor David Strathairn’s steely face as an eyebrow is raised, or an eyeball momentarily suggests the possibility of rolling at the increasing entertainment focus of television news - this Murrow can react, but never be cut.

Also: the film doesn’t need depth of character to accomplish what it sets out to do. This is more a fact-based political fable than any sort of biopic, saturated in lavish care for period detail and simply crazy about long stretches of newsreading (it’s ok - we’re dealing with actual newscasts), copious dollops of archival footage (for purposes of both scene-setting and condemnation), and slow pans across the halls as period jazz plays on. There’s a great moment of play near the beginning, in one of those music-filled scenes where we’re introduced to the busy environment of the story (here CBS News itself), and everybody is running around and hollering and we’re rapidly introduced to the major characters; at one point, a woman strays from her path and peers into a studio, and we discover that the jazz we’ve been hearing as the sequence’s score was actually being played in the context of the film’s reality, by a nearby music ensemble. It’s a fun moment, and evidences a canny sense of stagecraft on the part of director/co-writer George Clooney, whose prior feature Confessions of a Dangerous Mind often wandered into a “Look at me!! I can so direct!” terrain of overstated visual acrobatics. Though even that film nursed a story and a theme that complimented its director’s hungers, I must say.

This is a pretty hungry work too, but there’s a welcome level of restraint to it. Yes, it opens and closes with a keynote address Murrow gave at the a 1958 Radio-Television News Directors Association convention, the emphasized portions regarding the capacity for television to educate rather than lull obviously meant to allude to Today’s Concerns, but the meat of the film is exceedingly careful in presentation, strongly spoken but never strident, and rarely dull. This is a fairly short feature (one hour and thirty-three minutes), and it quite flew by for me; but then, Murrow’s own framing address implicitly acknowledges the need for entertainment, not asking for a coup of enlightenment in television, but merely one more day a week to exercise the potential of the medium. Surely the story is not politically ‘objective’ - one of its ongoing concerns, after all, involves the self-destructive foolishness of maintaining objectivity in the face of one side that constantly resorts to dishonesty and seat-of-power bullying tactics to advance its agenda. This does naturally raise the question of what happens in a world where every side simply cites their opponents’ lack of honesty in rendering them undeserving of objectivity, and what might happen to the resultant media reality - ah, but these are questions for the lobby afterwards.

Perhaps what the film is best at is painting a picture of total paranoia without utilizing any of the cinematic tricks and tropes of suspense. There’s no chilling music cues and a distinct lack of sweat-beaded brows, but I found the film to simply shake with edgy, jumpy energy, everyone knowing that they’re living in a time where things they didn’t know were happening in their past could rise up to strike down their entire lives’ devotion in one quick blow. There’s also the film’s omnipresent utilization of archival material; citations aren’t provided via subtitle, but I was willing to suspend my natural tendency to doubt the screen when Strathairn would read long segments of rhetoric on the air, presumably taken from actual Murrow broadcasts (I’ve since found out that at least the framing sequence speech was selectively abridged).

Even more compelling is all that stock footage, Clooney’s masterstroke arriving via the decision to allow Senator Joseph McCarthy to ‘play’ himself, the big on-air clash between him and Murrow beautifully structured though the use of control booth and on-set monitors. It even can be read as a parallel to the real CBS News team's use of footage in their programs to quietly discredit the Senator. And even then, one can argue, if the desire arises (please stay with me as I advocate for the devil) - isn’t it a bit disingenuous to provide McCarthy only the ratty, shivery realism of stock footage, its scratches and fadings and unprepared authentic period make-up and dress, while cloaking Strathaim-as-Murrow in luxurious, spotless b&w, his appearance carefully dressed in filmic ‘period’ style? Isn’t it a ploy, the filmmakers hiding behind a cloak, nodding toward authenticity of portrayal while a vastly more insidious demonization occurs, the kangaroo court of merely pitting the true McCarthy against the dramatic close-ups and prepared-for-hours magic of moviemaking?

Ha ha, of course I’m being silly - there’s actually no ‘right’ thing to do at all! If you have an actor play the character, interested parties could very easily just accuse the film of playing up the Senator’s least attractive traits (an already-popular tale Clooney has been recounting concerns one test audience member’s reaction to the film, where he or she complained via response card that the actor playing McCarthy was hamming it up, unaware that it was the authentic personage on screen). And the beauty of this film is that it understands the capacity for such attack. At one point, Murrow is dressed down by his boss - the bold newscaster makes an argument for crusading journalism, but his superior quite reasonably retorts that Murrow is thoroughly a self-censor already, selectively running stories on McCarthy’s attacks on sympathetic parties, rather than his no less untruthful assaults on actual Communist sympathizers (this is cannily set up in a throwaway line earlier in the film). And for a film so intent on maintaining its focus on the battle of Edward R. Murrow, it’s almost shocking when it pulls out a last-moment parallel between its hero and McCarthy himself - both men are left not defeated by their battle, but marginalized, Clooney (playing producer Fred Friendly) and Strathairn walking down the hall and discussing how McCarthy has not been kicked out of the Senate, but made to sit in the back, even as the two walk off to their characters’ new lives of limited television, everyone made smaller in a certain stature from the battle.

It’s a smart movie, even a wise one. Its looks are gorgeous, but it constantly works to undercut our notions of the past as a hallowed ground of idealism. A (slightly anachronistic, according to the IMBD) cigarette commercial displays an entirely self-aware attitude toward advertising, earlier than most would expect it. Newspaper columns are quoted, evidencing a very modern sentiment toward Bias! in the news media. Choices are made, options are weighed. One is impressed with the display, then they blink, and they really hope the film isn’t just making stuff up to forward its theme (for a useful compendium of criticisms, check out Jack Shafer's highly critical piece from Slate - needless to say, some stuff got puffed).

And regardless of all of that, the applause is muted. Murrow exits the podium into dead blackness and total silence. This film about him realizes that in a long-term political world, and least of all human life, there are rarely permanent victories, even in clashes as big as this one.