With a smoldering inner fire, David Strathairn quite literally becomes legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney's second directorial outing named after Murrow's signature sign-off, "Good Night, and Good Luck."
Long a respected character actor and key player in numerous indie films, Strathairn was a brilliant casting choice as the widely respected newsman whose pointed and comprehensive investigation of the tactics of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy would eventually trigger McCarthy's own self-destruction. From his first moments onscreen, it becomes nearly impossible to not be hypnotized by Strathairn's characterization of Murrow. From the ever present cigarette to his impenetrable presence to his quiet convictions, Strathairn's Murrow consumes the screen with subtlety, power and authenticity.
Unlike in his directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," here Clooney consistently chooses substance over style and clearly trusts the source material enough to avoid novelty and eccentricity in presentation. Perhaps being the son of a newsman, Clooney felt comfortable recreating this world or, perhaps, he simply felt comfortable at the helm of this film he directed and co-wrote. Regardless of the reasons, "Good Night, and Good Luck" is an exercise in quiet, subtle filmmaking in which Clooney avoids the gimmicks and novelties that distracted from his otherwise wonderful directing debut.
Clooney presents "Good Night, and Good Luck" in black and white, and brilliantly utilizes actual footage of McCarthy throughout the film. Robert Elswit's stunning cinematography perfectly matches the appearance of McCarthy's footage without losing quality or becoming a distraction. The production design is equally as exemplary in catching both the claustrophobic feel of a 50's newsroom and the inherent paranoia of the McCarthy era.
Strathairn, while clearly the star of "Good Night, and Good Luck" is surrounded by an ensemble cast that uniformly presents characters of tremendous diversity and complexity. This film could easily have been transformed into a left-wing propaganda piece, and while it would be clearly more pleasing to the left it is presented in such a way that each character is clearly possessed with strengths, weaknesses, skeletons and conviction. While the script does occasionally lack in character and history development, it fits the era well as this was a time when one couldn't, without fear of repercussions, truly expose one's complete character to anyone.
The ensemble cast plays these little moments of paranoia perfectly without ever resorting to histrionics or caricature. The perfect example is Frank Langella's multi-layered performance of CBS head William S. Paley. It would be easy to peg Paley as EITHER the courageous executive who advocated for Murrow and gave him tremendous freedom OR as the patronizing, weak-spined executive who fostered the atmosphere of fear at CBS. In reality, both points of view would be accurate, and Langella beautifully captures a man trying to balance corporate, political and fiscal responsibility with moral fortitude and deep loyalty.
Likewise, strong and multi-layered performances are offered by Clooney himself as producer Fred Friendly, Ray Wise as the tragic Don Hollenbeck and Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickelson. As husband and wife Joe and Shirley Wershba, Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson are hindered a tad by underwritten characters that seem without aim or focus throughout the film. Late in the film, we learn that they must keep their marriage a secret as CBS has a clear policy against married couples working at the network, however, this symbolism is largely lost in the under-written and misdirected characterizations. Still, both Downey and Clarkson do the best they can with the roles, though Clarkson also gets bogged down in the female caricatures of the 1950's that seem to be presented here.
The film is largely shot in episodes, and each episode is divided by scenes of jazz singer Dianne Reeves singing in a nearby studio. While the music is largely effective, I must confess this sort of interlude also brought to mind scenes from "American Psycho," where episodes and killings are often divided by pop music. This association, of course, took me away from the mood of the film and pulled me dramatically out of the action. Nevertheless, I doubt many would make this association and while the music appeared to have no thematic significance it certainly accentuated the mood nicely.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" merits Oscar consideration in several categories, including Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Strathairn) and Best Cinematography. While undoubtedly one of 2005's best films, "Good Night, and Good Luck" is a dark horse, at best, for a Best Picture nomination.
Rated PG, "Good Night and Good Luck" is a powerful film for family viewing that could open the door to discussions about family, friendship, loyalty, politics and a variety of other topics. With "Good Night, and Good Luck", Clooney proves himself to be one of America's up and coming directors of intelligent, powerful independent film.