Good Night, and Good Luck

My first thought as I watched Good Night, and Good Luck was:  Did George Clooney just quit smoking?  I know people loved their cigarettes in the 1950s, and I had read many comments on the amount of smoking in the movie, but those little cancer sticks kept stealing the stage.  There’s a loving shot of a lighter.  There’s an ad for Kent.  Even the black-and-white hues suggest exhaled blue clouds.

Eventually it hit me:  Clooney uses cigarettes to make a point.  You see, back in the 1950s, people didn’t know that cigarettes caused cancer.  Or, more accurately, smokers didn’t know.  Big Tobacco knew.  But rather than acknowledging that their products killed, thereby sacrificing profits, Big Tobacco companies concealed the harmful health effects of cigarettes and instead funded biased studies claiming that cigarettes weren’t hazardous to health.  They did this in order to keep consumers smoking, and their own pockets lined with money.

If you read that paragraph and said, “Wow!  Powerful people can’t be trusted!”, then Good Night, and Good Luck is the movie for you.  If, however, you said, “Uh…I took American History, too,” then you’re probably on my page.  As a movie, Clooney’s directorial debut is a piece of political propaganda, and an irritating one at that.

Before my liberal card gets revoked, I should say that I went in with high expectations and a good feeling.  I like black-and-white.  I like politics.  I don’t like George Clooney (he can’t act), but I agree with his politics, and I liked that he didn’t take a star turn in his directorial debut.  It was good to see David Strathairn and Reed Edward Diamond, both of whom I’ve liked since I first saw them 15 years ago (…wow) in Memphis Belle.  I’ve heard good things about Patricia Clarkson, and Robert Downey was a lot of fun in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

But this is really Clooney’s movie—in addition to directing and taking a supporting role, he co-wrote the script—and he reveals that behind the camera, he’s serviceable.  That’s not a compliment.  His ear for dialogue is not natural, and his sense of pacing is not effective.  In a few scenes, he goes for a Robert Altman overlapping-dialogue feel, but he forgets to point the camera at anything interesting as people talk.  His one unconventional idea is to feature Joseph McCarthy as himself, using the wonders of archival footage.  Though it’s an interesting move, I actually think it hurts the movie:  since the primary antagonist is nothing more than a talking head, it’s hard for Clooney to create the climate of fear and destruction that ultimately leads one character to commit suicide.  I know it’s there, but I’m not feeling it.

If Clooney weren’t involved, Good Night, and Good Luck would have aired as a TV movie.  It’s at that level of quality.  And it’s also at that level of analysis.  That’s what frustrates me the most.  As David Strathairn, playing Edward R. Murrow, opens a banquet in his honor with a speech about the dangers of media (and citizen) passivity, I got a queasy feeling.  I finally identified it as arthurmilleritis.  There’s no point so obvious that Clooney doesn’t underscore it with a clunky line of dialogue.  (Clarkson gets most of these lines, and fails to pull them off.)  There aren’t any subtle points at all.  You see, when Big Tobacco went unquestioned, they managed to profit off a fatal product.  When McCarthy went unquestioned, he ruined innocent people with his fearmongering tactics.  Could it be that, when George W. Bush went unquestioned, he unconstitutionally spied on Americans while simultaneously torturing alleged terrorists in secret prisons around the world?

It’s not that I think the movie is wrong.  It’s that I think it’s a bumper sticker.  And as valuable as bumper stickers are, they don’t make good cinema.  Neither does George Clooney.

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