Good Night, and Good Luck: History Replays Itself

By Lippe, Richard | CineAction, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Good Night, and Good Luck: History Replays Itself


Lippe, Richard, CineAction


Good Night, and Good Luck is the first mainstream film to respond to the consequences of 9/11 and the Bush administration's reaction to it. George Clooney, who directed, co-wrote and co-stars in the film, takes an indirect approach to present day concerns, using a 1954 televised confrontation between newscaster Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy to address two major issues: 1) civil liberties; 2) the media, specifically television. The Murrow-McCarthy exchange of words neatly combines both these issues. In the immediate post WW II period, McCarthy used Cold War fears, particularly the threat of Communist infiltration into American society through the government, education and the entertainment industry, to keep the public on edge over national security. Using the House Un-American Activities Committee as his base, he became, as its chairman, the most celebrated and feared government official in America, hunting down individuals who he claimed were Communists or involved in subversive activities. McCarthy's tactics were intimation and the inducing of fear, making often outrageous accusations with little or no regard for the consequences of his claims. In the name of patriotism, McCarthy destroyed lives and mounted a powerful assault on civil liberties. What he did in the early 1950s finds its echo in George W. Bush's post 9/11 on-going war on terror that included from the outset making civil liberties secondary to the government's protection of its citizens. While McCarthy had instilled fear into the media (anyone who challenged his credibility was labelled a Communist or pro-Communism), the Bush administration attempts to use the mainstream media, which has been predominantly willing to support the government whatever it says, to shape public opinion in its favour. And, Bush, like McCarthy, uses fear to keep the American public under his sway.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Good Night, and Good Luck is an inspired piece of socially responsible filmmaking. Taking an incident from what is considered a dark period in recent American history as his subject matter, Clooney addresses a significant aspect of the political climate of contemporary America and does so without needing to belabour his point. But Good Night, and Good Luck isn't merely a film with a clever concept. It is an intelligent and graceful combining of politics, art and entertainment. I want to briefly comment below on the film's aesthetics, its mise-enscene, structure and performances.

Clooney shot Good Night, and Good Luck in black and white. His primary reason for doing so was that he decided to use archival footage of Joseph McCarthy instead of having an actor play the senator. The film includes footage of McCarthy interrogating a witness during a House Un-American Activities Committee session and his appearance on "See It Now" in which he responds to an earlier show in which Murrow challenges his tactics and motives. Clooney, in interviews (1), says that he didn't want an actor playing McCarthy because he felt it was better if the viewer had direct access to the senator's presence and persona. The strategy works very well as McCarthy is, in his own way, a fascinating figure, being in equal measure forceful and nervously hesitant, sincere and sinister, transparent and manipulative. And, in using McCarthy himself, the film provides an accurate record of his ideas and politics.

While the kinescope footage of McCarthy adds to the film's recreation of the 1950s, the film's black and white photography aids in evoking the period in other ways. It references the aesthetic of the documentary film which was, until the 1970s, dominated by black and white photography. Similarly, television programs were broadcast, with rare exceptions, in black and white as colour sets were very expensive at the time. Clooney judiciously reinforces the film's connections to documentary film and television respectively through the staging of scenes and their framing. …

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