Sunday, May 07, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck

Finally had the chance to see Good Night, and Good Luck, and now I am mad at myself for not having made the effort when it was in the theaters here when it first came out. Maybe then I could have enjoyed it as just a movie and not spent 80 of its 93 mintues dwelling on all the fodder for political arguments it presented.

Watching it on DVD, I wasted too much time thinking every minute of Right Wing kulturkampfers' attempts in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards to discredit it, Brokeback Mountain, and the other three nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture. This is too bad, because Good Night, and Good Luck isn't really a very political film.

But it was too bad in another way that it wasn't more political. I think it would have been a better "just a movie" if its political implications had been generated more hotly from within rather than stoked by ideas brought to it by Liberals like me and Conservatives determined to dislike it on principle.

There are things about Good Night, and Good Luck that are "Liberal." The idea that the Communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s were pernicious and destructive, the presentation of Joe McCarthy as a villain and Ed Murrow as a hero, the notion that it is the job of journalists to challenge the lies of political leaders, especially powerful ones, and to expose their wrongdoing and abuses of power and trust---these are all "Liberal" only because "Conservatives" have a beef with historical fact, an aversion to admitting their own mistakes, and a vested interest in seeing that certain lying politicians get away with it.

The only honestly Liberal vs. Conservative clash of ideas is in the movie's taking it for granted that the threat to the nation from homegrown Communists was nothing compared to threat to Americans' civil liberties and, indeed, their very lives---ruin a person's career and you've destroyed their life---posed by the Witch Hunters.

Conservatives can argue that the threat from the Enemy Within was real and truly dangerous, but they also have to show that the methods of Nixon, HUAC, McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover were actually useful in helping to thwart that threat and save us from the danger. They can point to Alger Hiss, but they have to prove that getting Hiss was worth the climate of fear they created and the ruined lives of all those innocents they took down in the process.

Just restating fears and paranoid theories about what might have happened is not enough. Nor is going on a rant about how evil the Soviet Union was. That's the given.

At any rate if you sit down to watch it, accepting the idea that a free, energetic, and courageous Press is a good thing in a democracy and you hold no brief for Joe McCarthy and his methods, Good Night, and Good Luck isn't a particularly political movie. And I was a bit disappointed with it because of that.

In fact, I think even Conservatives might have liked it better if it had been more Liberal, if it had gone after McCarthy the way Murrow and his boys (and girl) went after him.

Absent a political ax to grind, there isn't much dramatic tension to sustain the story.

Once upon a time I read a conservative writer's dismissal of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which she saw as nothing more than an allegory for McCarthyism. (See note below.) The difference between the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, she wrote, was that there's no such thing as witches while there were real Communists abroad in the land.

But there were witches. That is, there were a bunch of teenage girls who were experimenting with what they thought of as witchcraft. And there were Communists in America who were working to bring about a workers' revolution.

But handfuls of people gathered around mimeograph machines in basements had no more chance of destroying the American Way of Life than a group of adolescent girls dancing in the woods at night and telling each other ghost stories had of calling spirits from the briny deep.

The parallels are in the way other people with their own political agendas exaggerated the threats and whipped up fears that they then exploited as a way of consolidating their own power.

The point then, as it is now, with the cries of treason and anti-Americanism, was to stifle dissent and scare people into voting Republican.

This is a "Liberal" reading of history, but it is taken for granted in Good Night, and Good Luck to the point of being almost missing from the plot. It's not quite treated as historical window dressing. We see enough of Annie Lee Moss and Milo Radulovich to get the idea of what was going on.

What we don't see is it going on. The movie never shows McCarthyism reaching out through the television screen to touch any living, breathing human beings.

When they decided that McCarthy would play himself in the movie, that he would appear only in the form of real news footage, director George Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov may have had in mind how Richard Nixon is seen on only TV screens in the background in All The President's Men. But Nixon's heavy hand was felt throughout without his real presence being necessary. It was in the fear of the people who worked for the White House and the Committee to Re-elect, the aides and secretaries Woodward and Bernstein tried to talk to.

There are no comparable scenes in Good Night, and Good Luck. The only victims of McCarthyism we're shown are Moss and Radulovich (who was never targeted by McCarthy himself) and because we see them only on TV they don't come alive as characters. They are basically props in the How I Got That Story plot.

And that plot isn't all that compelling because we don't see Murrow get that story. We see him and his reporters and producers and cameramen talking about what they're doing, but we only see any of them out doing any reporting in one short scene. The human drama of Good Night, and Good Luck is in the three subplots, any one of which could have carried a movie on its own, with the Murrow against McCarthy story as its background and subplot.

The least dramatic of the three---that is, the one that comes closest to the border between drama and comedy---involves Robert Downey Jr and Patricia Clarkson as Joe and Shirley Wershba, a couple working for Murrow who have to hide the fact that they're married because CBS has a policy prohibiting employees from marrying each other.

The subplot concerning Murrow and Fred Friendly's contest of wills with CBS head Bill Paley is interesting because of Paley's ambivalence. He likes and admires Murrow, he wants Murrow to do the job he was hired to do, but he is a businessman and the two sides of him are at odds to the point of his becoming almost a Jekyll and Hyde, with each side rooting against itself even as it dominates the situation at hand. But in that plot Paley not Murrow is the main character.

The subplot that was most compelling to me was the unraveling, nervous breakdown, and tragic end of newscaster Don Hollenbeck, played with a desperately cheerful vulnerability by Ray Wise that's painful to watch. There are a couple of short scenes between Hollenbeck and Murrow that are among the most heartbreaking I've ever seen on film. In both Hollenbeck is struggling mightily to hide all the cracks in the foundation of his pride but new ones are appearing as he speaks and Wise's smile broadens with each new fissure; meanwhile David Stathairn as Murrow, without saying a word, shows his horror and concern at what's happening and also his disgust. He is watching his friend driving himself off a cliff and he wants to stop him, but at the same time he's blaming the man for his weakness.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a good movie, if not as great a one as I expected. Clooney does a remarkable job of capturing the look and sounds of the 1950s without making the mistake of a lot of directors of period pieces who push the period details into the audience's faces so we can admire their scrupulous attention to history. The look and feel of the film is so natural that there were times when I forgot that I was looking at a movie made in 2005 and not 50 years ago, and there were other times when I forgot I was watching a work of fiction.

And Strathairn is brilliant as Murrow, and he does much of his best work with his silences, which, considering he's playing a man known for his voice and use of words, is a surprising bit of actorly craftiness, in both the sense of professional craftsmanship and trickiness. There's a moment after he finishes interviewing Liberace (played by Liberace's ghost in the form of the real film clip from Murrow's other show, the one he did to pay penance to Bill Paley for See It Now, Person to Person), when with just a twitch of the jaw Strathairn reveals the degree of disgust he feels, for himself and for Liberace, for the lie they've just told together about Liberace's hopes for finding the right girl to marry and settle down to raise a family with.

Strathairn does not do as complete an impersonation of Murrow as Philip Seymour Hoffman does of Capote, but somehow his portrayal stands apart from the other actors' in a way that Hoffman's doesn't in his film, perhaps because Capote was doing an impersonation so the staginess of Hoffman's acting seems more "natural." For most of Good Night, and Good Luck Strathairn is playing against other actors who are not doing character parts. They are all young leading men and one leading woman playing their parts in the easy, naturalistic style of American movie actors. Consequently, in their scenes together Strathairn's performance is almost out of place. (Clooney himself, though, while not impersonating Fred Friendly, does a terrific job of effacing himself as a leading man. He makes himself a good second banana to Strathairn.) Strathairn is at his best in his scenes with Frank Langella as Bill Paley and Wise as Hollenbeck, the only other character actors in the film.

This is another reason why I think it was a mistake not to have McCarthy played by an actor. McCarthy himself was not much of character. He was weak, self-pitying, bombastic, and untelegenic. Arthur Miller describes the difficulty contemporary audiences might have believing that such a man ever frightened an entire nation down to its socks:

[F]ilms of Senator Joseph McCarthy are rather unsettling—if you remember the fear he once spread. Buzzing his truculent sidewalk brawler's snarl through the hairs in his nose, squinting through his cat's eyes and sneering like a villain, he comes across now as nearly comical, a self-aware performer keeping a straight face as he does his juicy threat-shtick.

We need to feel the man as a human being instead of just seeing him as his own televised ghost. Casting someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or John C. Reilly would have, in addition to giving Strathairn's performance the counterweight I think it needed, would have allowed us to react to McCarthy as a person and made the threat he posed to people and the country more alive to us now.

Note: The bane of my existence as a blogger is having a better than average memory but not a photographic one. The conservative writer I mentioned above was not that would-be whitewash artist for McCarthy's reputation, Ann Coulter. It was someone with more intellectual weight and a real reputation as a writer. I think it might have been Clare Booth Luce. Google hasn't so far turned up the article. But whoever it was I believe her criticisms of The Crucible represent a general and serious Conservative line on Miller. The Crucible is a very good play as simply a straight-forward dramatization of what happened in Salem in 1692, but its place in the history of American theatre has been mainly secured by its allegorical relationship to Joe McCarthy's America. Miller wrote the play as a political statement, and if you reject the idea that McCarthyism had anything in common with the Witch Trials, then you can make a reasonable argument that as political theater the play is a failure, an attractive argument to Conservatives who still don't want to face up to what McCarthy stood for.

Miller wrote an essay for the New Yorker when the movie version of The Crucible came out in 1996 in which he made the case for the play's continued political relevancy apart from its origins as a warning against the evils of McCarthyism.

Blogger's Hat-trick: Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's and at the American Street.


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