Good Night, Sweet Prince
In the face of corporate-entertainment priorities, good movies manage to come out, sometimes even find distribution. But good and intelligent is rare. At the Q&A that followed the screening of Good Night, and Good Luck, the informal, informally dressed four on the Lincoln Center/New York Film Festival stage were in high spirits, knowing how excellent their movie is.
When Patricia Clarkson playfully groused about pay, she was at once passed a couple of greenbacks borrowed from David Strathairn and safekept them in her bosom, and George Clooney dripped irony with “we are wealthy wealthy.” Nevertheless, while with an eye toward Godard and in the direction of simplicity and important silences and lens objectivity, the first inclination was Super 16, producer/cowriter Grant Heslov noted that, once b&w had been decided on to fit with the archival footage sorted out over a year-and-a-half, they had gone to the costlier and slower processing black-and-white stock (most modern b&w is printed on cheaper color negative).
Director/cowriter Clooney smiled that b&w had been decided upon “this morning” but release prints were to be colorized, and other banter touched on non-smoker Strathairn’s puffing four packs a day (of actually milder scented pipe tobacco, rolled by prop men) for six weeks’ shooting for his rôle in this 1950s “Kent filters best” cigarette-friendly picture. There were jokes about audience applause, and about a loud complaint against a view-obstructing photographer, as coming from “family members,” but also a touching reference to Aunt Rosemary as well as numerous ones to the professional and moral ethics of George’s father Nick, for thirty years an anchorman out of Cincinnati and now running for Congress from northern Kentucky.
There were also insights as to why this film, at this time, in an epoch of fear, of encroachment on civil liberties, and of frivolous media irresponsibility. Change the film’s “Communist” to “Muslim” or “terrorist,” and see how the shoe fits.
This is not biopic. Edward R. Murrow’s (Strathairn) past of North Carolina and Washington State College, his wife Janet and one son, and radio and TV career at CBS and leap to fame with “This is London” wartime broadcasts, are but passingly worked in. Nor, despite its careful “look,” is it documentary, though technique and meticulously double-checked research bring it close, even to details such as Fred W. Friendly’s (Clooney) pencil-touching, note-holding-up posture during airtime. Backed by Dianne Reeves’s Greek chorus of arguably too pat standards -- e.g., “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” “TV Is the Thing This Year” -- it photographs a “timeless” moment in time, when a junior senator from Wisconsin (counseled, actuality footage shows, by Roy Cohn and -- look hard right -- the young Robert Kennedy) cowed the nation with his witchhunt for Commies.
Distinct from Michael Moore’s scattershot diatribes, the film claims an objectivity it mostly achieves, for activist liberal Democrat Clooney admits to a fact or two that the real-life hero glossed over, too. But the concern of neither Murrow nor the filmmakers is whether Annie Lee Moss was fellow traveler or card carrier or not, but, instead, our right to confront accusations and faceless witnesses. Bullying his way to prominence with allegations of espionage at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in the climate of Lt. Milo Radulovich’s sealed, guilt-by-association dismissal from the Air Force Reserve, McCarthy was at last publicly challenged by Murrow on CBS-TV’s “See It Now” (descendant of radio's "Hear It Now").
Opening with the October 25, 1958, Radio and Television News Association dinner honoring Murrow, and his reasoned jeremiad against the new, “fat, comfortable, complacent” medium’s attempts to “detract, delude, amuse and insulate” the public at the expense of real issues, the film is flashback consideration of individual integrity and of media manipulation and responsibility.
In these compact ninety minutes that waste nothing, most parts are smaller, hard to name but nevertheless reinforcing, notably but not exclusively those of supportive but sponsor-wary network chairman William Paley (Frank Langella), open-secret husband and wife producer Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr., and Clarkson), and ill-fated Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise). Center, however, are a superb Strathairn, humanized by his “Person to Person” self-disgusted unease at interviewee Liberace’s gushing about looking for a wife, and Clooney’s unobtrusive loyal sidekick with wide-frame glasses and wider body (the pounds put on for a previous rôle and, because of a back injury and surgery, not shed).
A wise NYFF opening night selection, to be shown twice, this is a homegrown as good, and as relevant, as it gets. Its director’s offhand but wistful “mega-hit” is another matter. Desensitized by blare, the moviegoing yesterday-is-ancient-history generation will not flock to see the labor pains of its world. Dangerously, it prefers bloodred special-effects courage and phantom beasts to the real, admirable or frightening, things.
(Released by Warner Independent Pictures and rated “PG” for mild swearing and a reference to suicide.)