After sitting down to watch the new George Clooney-directed feature Good Night, and Good Luck, this phrase became painfully relevant, “Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.”
The film examines famed CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow’s attack on Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his crusade against those the senator alleged to be communist agents infiltrating the government and the mainstream media.
During the mid-1950s, McCarthy was making a name for himself in Washington by accusing everyone, from United States soldiers to Hollywood power-players, of being active members of the Communist party seeking to subvert American capitalist values with “red propaganda.” Even in this time of rampant fear and paranoia of communism, which would later be known as “McCarthyism,” many in the media, including Murrow, were able to see through the unfounded claims set forth by McCarthy and into his own shallow attempts to become a major player in Congress.
But more than being just a simple historical recreation of the journalism benchmark, Good Night goes inside the decision-making process of Murrow and his team to take on an enemy as powerful as McCarthy.
The cast is stacked with big-name talent, including Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels and George Clooney, who, in addition to directing the film, also co-wrote the script with co-star Grant Heslov. Yet despite all of the star-power on screen at any given time, the cast does a marvelous job of taking a backseat to the relatively unknown David Strathairn.
Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow with such dedicated dry-deadpan that his acting makes you feel as though the other actors were working around digital clips of the real Murrow, instead of an actor playing him.
While great acting certainly does a lot of the leg work for the character, Strathairn’s anonymity allows you to absorb his take on Murrow whole-heartedly in a way that someone like Clooney couldn’t pull off even if he wanted to.
Look for plenty of Strathairn mentions come Oscar season, if not a copious amount of mentions for the film and cast as a whole when it comes time to start doling out statues.
In addition to the great casting, the producers made a decision to do the entire film in stylish black and white. It subconsciously sucks you into the ’50s in a way you don’t even register, until the lights come back on in the theatre and you begin to remember what color is.
The film, though only a brisk 90 minutes, carries across all of it’s points and then some in thorough fashion, working in plenty of subplot for the film’s great character actors like Downey (playing reporter Joe Wershba) and Ray Wise, playing tragic news anchor Don Hollenbeck in a way that even someone like William H. Macy would have to applaud.
Walking away from Good Night, and Good Luck it becomes impossible to ignore how essential it is for our society to have a press that is free-willed and hungry to expose injustice.
In a time where our leaders instill in us a fear based on an abstract ideology born out of long-finished history in lands far away, the need for the Edward R. Murrows of the world is greater than ever.
Those who report the news, and those who take it in need to see this film, not to learn what went wrong in the past, but what was right about it.
In many ways this film creates a new spin on that old-time quote – “Those who fail to learn from the triumphs of the past are doomed to march on into failure.”
Slade Bracey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.