For those who may not be familiar with the spectacular saga of Edward Murrow v. Joseph McCarthy, it goes something like this: Murrow does some anti-McCarthy broadcasts on his CBS news program. McCarthy gets really angry. Murrow gets demoted. The end. Those who may have been hoping that Good Night, and Good Luck. would add a back-alley confrontation between the two men, or perhaps a hostage crisis, are going to be out of luck. George Clooney’s sophomore directorial effort comes off as authentic but awfully thin and uneventful; he’s working with patently undramatic source material, and he keeps it staunchly undramatic.
On one hand, it would be easy to argue that my instinct to knock the film for not being sufficiently exciting is a result of the very same instinct that it so passionately condemns: that our constant desire for bigger, faster, more has led to a dumbing down and sensationalization of the media which, in turn, has made the media lazy. But that would be cheating. Good Night, and Good Luck. is not, after all, television news, and nor is it a documentary. Clooney has chosen to engage the medium of dramatic filmmaking, and I’d argue that he doesn’t deliver.
I am tempted, but I am not suggesting that Clooney should have made stuff up in an effort to add excitement and pathos. (Off the record, though, I would urge him to consider that old chestnut about not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.) He could have put some meat on the bones. The film relies pathologically on reenactments and archival footage, to the point where you wonder why Clooney didn’t just go ahead and make a documentary. We learn about as much about Edward Murrow (for example) as we do about McCarthy, which is to say, not much; we don’t see McCarthy outside of HUAC hearings and his brief appearance on “See It Now,” and we don’t see Murrow outside of his broadcasts and backroom strategy meetings.
Of course, that’s not really a fair criticism. Clooney’s spare, terse style is a choice, not a mistake, and it is clear that his intention was to give precisely this sort of bare-bones account. And the movie has considerable virtues, foremost among them its authenticity. I am not referring to factual accuracy, which I don’t care a lick about, to be frank; rather, I mean to say that despite the film’s limited scope, its characters and their interactions ring true. We don’t learn much about them, as I mentioned, but when we see them squabble and conspire in backroom tactical sessions and tense damage control meetings, they seem like real, fully-formed people.
This goes a long way in making Good Night, and Good Luck. anything but boring; Clooney’s gorgeous black-and-white and David Strathairn’s dignified, nervous Ed Murrow help. It helps, too, that the story of a man courageously standing up to one of America’s most notorious villains has an inherent crackerjack appeal; everyone loves a rebel. But Clooney, in his admirable, if misguided commitment to journalistic integrity shoots himself in the foot, rendering the movie stiff, intractable, dry — not even the addition of interludes featuring a sultry jazz singer contributes much (though it was a good idea).
Protestations that truth is stranger than fiction aside, I must say that I still prefer fiction.