Good Night, and Good Luck

Intelligent, engrossing thriller, but does it give you the fear?

By Tim Young

The paranoid thrillers that passed for mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 70s, directed by people like Alan J Pakula, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer and Francis Coppola, were subtle, mean and moody films that filled you with a real unease. Good guys often lost –hard-boiled film noir toughs they were not. They got arrested, died or went nuts, and there were lots of meaningful glances, people hiding in doorways and car parks and rain. In fact, the weather was generally crap. These films show what happens when the 60s are over and everyone gets the fear. They were complex, involving and often pretty nihilistic.

After years of Hollywood thrillers featuring outrageous pyrotechnics and pumping rock soundtracks it would appear that 2006 is the year of the paranoid thriller revival. There are three so far: Munich, Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck. The difference here is that these movies are rooted in belief.

Good Night and Good Luck comes from George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s Section 8 stable (as does Syriana) and is Clooney’s second shot in the director’s chair. It concerns the efforts of widely respected 1950s TV journalist Edward R Murrow to expose the communist witch hunts carried out by Senator Joe McCarthy and his house un-American activities committee. This was a time when great swathes of the entertainment industry, armed services and other sections of society were accused of involvement with communism, called up and forced to denounce others. Murrow saw this as an attack on civil liberties and used his platform to challenge McCarthy in public.

The movie clearly throws up a lot of modern comparisons. In an opening speech, Murrow asks an audience whether TV is merely here to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate us”. Today, a time where wars are directed for public broadcast by a media used as a tool by a government that demonises groups of society for its own ends, we remain distracted and desensitised. Propaganda and apathy are more important issues in the capitalist media now than the communist doctrine that mccarthy claimed to defend us from. Is murrow’s brand of crusading journalism as interesting to us as Celebrity Big Brother, anyway? Would anyone even care?

To return to the comparison, similarities with the 70s thrillers are striking: lots of shifty glances, aggressive smoking (don’t even think of seeing this film if you’re trying to quit) and creeping unease. Where the film falls down in this comparison, however, is that McCarthy never quite comes across as an impossible force like the Nixon administration, or the unseen parallax corporation. Murrow always seems to have the upper hand – poised, composed. McCarthy comes across as listless and dishevelled. This is no criticism of an actor’s performance – McCarthy only exists in the movie in actual archive footage – but it perhaps brings the suspense level down a notch as Murrow elicits total confidence from the viewer that he will prevail.

In telling the story, Clooney has assembled a great cast including David Strathairn as Murrow in an Oscar nominated performance, RobertDowney Jr, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and Clooney himself. However, far from being a showy vanity project stuffed with 50s kitsch, the movie is told sparingly and simply – its conversational air, luminous black and white photography and concise 90 minute length all lessons in intelligent, economical filmmaking.

What is evident is that multiplexes this year are going to be screening dense, intelligent grown-up thrillers to mainstream audiences, films which reflect filmmakers concerns and the shaky state of world affairs. Unfortunately, i’m not optimistic about this continuing. Maybe i just have the fear.
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