Click here to view Relevant Tomorrow blog posts in an easily browsable and feed-readable format!

(Then click on a post's title to read that post in its entirety.)


A Film Analysis of "Good Night, and Good Luck"

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) is George Clooney’s warning to today’s post-9/11-YouTube culture that civil liberties and rights can slip away with mass hysteria. Clooney’s Marxist approach criticizes government and corporate influence over the news broadcasting industry, which is a problem that undermines one of America’s most basic liberties—freedom of speech. The heart of Clooney’s approach is the idea that sometimes journalists need to go beyond simple verbatim reporting and offer some interpretation of news, even when it means questioning the integrity of government/corporate entities. Clooney emphasizes the tensions caused by the post-war paranoia through the acting and characterizations, the editing, the sound, and the lighting.

In order to grasp why these stylistic elements are appropriate, the reason the film takes on a Marxist approach must be considered. Ed Murrow’s crusade against McCarthy was very controversial, considering that the major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) essentially thought of their news shows as filler programming. Each show that examined real issues of the day was only thirty minutes, leaving the vast majority of the day’s programming devoted to shallow entertainment. The news shows were merely a vehicle to legitimize the networks, since the shows themselves did not make any money. The selling of advertising time on television is capitalism at its finest, and this is where Karl Marx would take issue. News reporting, as the “fourth check on government,” has a distinct responsibility to not only report, but to expose injustices in government actions. The news media is the microscope that educates citizens by displaying and dissecting the actions of their nation and world. The Marxist approach finds the network corporate umbrellas favoring the advertising dollar over uncensored news material outrageous, as this is an example of how the bourgeoisie dominates the masses. This favoring of money and shareholder interests over risqué content also lessens the impact of broadcast news, as Murrow amazingly foretold in his 1958 speech about the dangers of complacency in the television audience.

The Marxist approach can also be applied to the hierarchical scheme of the CBS corporation. Take the portrayal of William Paley, the head of CBS. He effectively becomes the villain of the film that prevents the heroes—Murrow and Friendly—from telling the news from the interpretive perspective. He prevents them from doing so not necessarily because he disagrees with them, but because he gives in to the pressure of the advertisers and the ratings. This is the upper class of the corporate hierarchy telling his workers to stand down and not risk his source of income, as opposed to giving them complete autonomy in their news story decisions. Marx would say that the “bourgeoisie” of CBS is holding back the “proletariat” news reporters, explaining it as another example of the dialectical view of class struggle.

Since the era of McCarthyism encompassed fear and paranoia, the acting and characterizations in Good Night, and Good Luck had to drive this point home. In almost every scene where the content of See It Now is portrayed, the expressions on the actors’ faces are of grim desperation. The dramatic acting in the film is lush with prolonged eye contact and intense line delivery, combining the two to illuminate the fear of being fired felt among the people. This is specifically evident in the paranoid-filled dialogue in the scenes between Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson. When these characters interact, their facial expressions are highlighted by close-up shots that vividly depict their paranoia.

The film strives to illustrate the incredible fear the CBS employees had about being accused as Communist sympathizers, and the dramatic acting methods employed perfectly cue the viewer in on this. Take David Strathairn: Every time he ends his courageous oratories about the Senator’s actions to close out his broadcast, he looks down and gasps as though he had just been punched in the gut, giving the idea that he knows an IRS audit is forthcoming. He is also perpetually smoking a cigarette, even while on the air. This is one of the characterizations of Murrow that gives the viewer the impression that while he is brave and full of conviction in his reporting, he is also a nervous wreck over the implications of his editorials. The very fact that an on air personality would criticize a congressman was unprecedented, let alone done at a time when people were cautious in what they said. With that kind of pressure on Murrow, it is easy to understand why he was such a nicotine addict. It is obvious that David Strathairn studied Edward Murrow tirelessly, as he seamlessly slips into the role, leaving viewers to believe that this is the real Murrow. He is a true impersonator. The tone of voice that Strathairn uses is exactly like the real Murrow. He also delivers his lines with an unparalleled articulation of the enlightened being, legitimizing the perception that this one man really spoke for an entire generation of American citizens.

George Clooney is another example of how the acting adds to the message, and yet again he exhibits himself as a personality actor. In every movie he seemingly plays the suave, cool, almost James Bond type of guy that drives all the women wild. However, he perfectly fits his well-established screen qualities into a believable journalist/producer character that is cool and calm under the corporate pressure during the McCarthy era. The scene where he is chastising the two colonels indicates this clearly. This particular scene is Clooney’s way of telling his audience that reporters are the best people to expose loss of civil liberties due to bogus charges. Clooney’s Leftist viewpoint is well-established, and casting himself in the movie subconsciously promulgates his real life viewpoint.

Another example is the Don Hollenbeck character. The man gives a façade of confident reporting, while in reality is sick with worry over his critics. He is always hiding behind a wry smile, and his eyes tell the story of his paranoia better than his actual dialogue. He almost has to use every ounce of his strength to speak when his dialogue does come into play. This is evident in the scene where Murrow refuses to go after O’Brian upon his request. The scene where he forces the critic to be read aloud also establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt the characterization of the paranoid anchorman.

The sound adds to the theme of fear and paranoia. The most obvious is the use of the jazz singer as a transition and mood setter. At the very beginning, the sound of the 1958 banquet is silenced and the jazzy song plays over the event. The singer is used as an audio cue for the viewer to feel the current mood of the scene--one of tension and suspense as the viewer knows the CBS employees would be experiencing difficulties. After Murrow’s criticism over the Ridulovich case airs, the sound cuts out and the jazz singer is featured again singing, “I’ve got my eye on you, so beware.” This is an obvious reference to the fact that if the government and advertisers were not watching before, they certainly would be now. The songs not only give the viewer a feel of the 1950’s, but provide cues as to where the story is transitioning.

There is a rather ironic transition in the editing. When the commercial for Kent is played, the announcer talks about how the Kent customer is a sophisticated American with great taste. The customer is also not “easily persuaded by advertising,” and makes their own intelligent decisions. This is ironic in that when the commercial first plays the viewer of the film is led to believe that the announcer is citing a statistic lauding the free-choosing American citizen, but then finds out it is an ad for the insidious drug. This is an example of how capitalism can mislead the proletariat masses.

One of Ed Murrow’s pet peeves was that networks always favored entertainment over news, since the advertising money in the entertainment shows was more substantial. The movie spotlights Murrow’s interviews with Liberace and a European royal couple. These interviews are placed during the complication part of the film’s linear structure. Each interview is ended on a light-hearted note, with Murrow almost cringing as he closes out the segment. After he gets a response to his softball question, he sits in his chair with an extremely forced smile. The entertainment driven segments pleased the advertisers, again compromising what news stories made the air. The addition of these segments in the film illustrates that the entire program was not completely devoted to pure news. The Alcoa commercial is used the same way. The footage is not only used as a transitional element in the editing process, but also to illustrate that the advertisers were a constant presence. These commercials are played before Murrow’s program begins, and Clooney illustrates that the commercials and their money were always a constant presence, and thus a constant consideration when going forth with a news story.

Another example of the Marxist message in the editing lies in the Annie Lee Moss hearing. Unfortunately, America’s history of race discrimination is abhorrent. With the Communist hearings fledgling under McCarthy’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach, a blue-collar black woman was an easy target to gain support for the witch hunt. In the scene, McCarthy tells Moss’s lawyer, a black man, to speak only through his client. This violation of the defendant’s 5th Amendment right would be less likely to occur if she were a white woman with a white lawyer. Once McCarthy’s charges are discredited, another Senator speaks about the ridiculous nature of the investigation. By editing this real footage into the film towards the climax, the message is clear and one that gives the film a textbook-like quality—that this threat of lost liberties has happened before and is on the verge of happening again.

The lighting combined with the black and white color scheme in the film gives it a neo-noir appeal, and this is appropriate considering the time period and political climate. The lighting is used to provide a visual element to the overall paranoid feeling. An example of this is the first appearance of Joe McCarthy, where the CBS news team is watching his speech. As he speaks, a close-up of Murrow is shown. His face is dark because of the room lighting, and this offers a clue about the dangerous waters he is about to tread. Another use of dark lighting to reflect character is used during the aforementioned scene with Friendly and the two colonels. Friendly is washed in the white light from the window while the faces of the two colonels are dark. This contrast in color gives a clue as to who falls into the roles of protagonist and antagonist.

Tying in with the editing (the scene with Murrow interviewing Liberace), the lighting serves to display the previously stated disdain Murrow had for the soft stories. After the show goes off the air, Murrow sits in his chair smoking a cigarette in complete darkness, yet he is still bright in white light. This lighting symbolizes the fact that even though the man is in a dark corporate hierarchy influenced by money, he is still a man people can trust to tell the news like it is.

Considering the political climate of today, Good Night, and Good Luck is Clooney’s thesis that external influence over news is not only dangerous, but leads to wide-spread hysteria and eventual chaos. Clooney uses the McCarthy/Murrow feud as a way of encouraging Americans to not be afraid in questioning the motivation behind government and corporate actions. After all, when the integrity of news is threatened because of the excesses of capitalism, how free can America be?

No comments:


Comments? Suggestions? Questions? Want to join the relevanTeers? Contact us via e-mail at relevantomorrow at

Copyright Notice:

Creative Commons License
All of Relevant Tomorrow's original content is the property of Relevant Tomorrow Media and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.