Watching Return of the Killer Tomatoes! back in the day it would have taken a brave person to point at the bepermed George Clooney and say "One day he'll be a major Hollywood player... " While we loved him in E.R. doing the buddy buddy thing with Mark, annoying the hell out of everyone else and occasionally punching crappy parents in the chops, he still didn't seem destined for greatness. Then Tarantino arrived, gave him a nudge in the right direction and after the first half of From Dusk Till Dawn he was suddenly action movie material. Batman fell into place off the back of that (thanks to Robert Rodriguez' 'hero' shots), but that sucked worse than a chest wound, so again there was little sign of what was to come. The Peacemaker was a great film that set the tone for the later Jason Bourne movies, helped get Nicole Kidman away from the runt, but also gave a little more room for Clooney to stretch - he's good pointing guns, but even better given the space to act. And then he teamed up with Steven Soderbergh for the sublime Out of Sight and things picked up a pace. You began to get a sense that not only could this guy act, but also that there were some real wheels turning up there. By the time he came to make the under rated Solaris (one of the best films ever made on the subject of grief and loss and a worthy companion piece to the original), well, to paraphrase Clooney in Out of Sight quoting Peter Finch in Network he was 'mad as hell and not going to take it anymore'. Do you remember the hoo-ha over reporters asking him about his movie star backside in Solaris? He hit the fucking roof.
In a recent Sight and Sound interview he makes a grand statement:
"I fully believe in entertainment - I've made a lot of it over the years - but I also think that in general films should reflect our society"
It's a pity that he let himself slip into Ocean's 12 before realising that, but now he's in the Participant Productions fold and it's a great fit. This is the company committed to making socially relevant films such as North Country, Murderball and of course the upcoming Clooney double whammy of Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck. Both are stunning films and among the best we saw last year. Now Good Night and Good Luck is up for a bunch of Oscars and while we think that Brokeback Mountain will probably win out and that people will be wowed by Capote it's Clooney who should really be getting best achievement in directing nod and it's his tribute to Ed Murrow that should win best film. Not bad for someone who started out in TV shows like Street Hawk and Murder She Wrote.
Oh hang on, we forgot to review the actual film... In 1953 Ed Murrow, a renowned reporter and TV anchor for CBS' See It Now, stumbles across the story of a pilot who was discharged from the navy as a security risk without a trial or even knowing what he was accused of. The subsequent investigation into that story leads Murrow to begin the dangerous task of exposing senator Joseph McCarthy - the figure behind the now infamous McCarthy communist witch hunts. Set in a time of intense paranoia in a country filled with fear of the Red Menace, Murrow's weekly attacks on the system leave himself and his colleagues open for 'investigation' and smear campaigns from the entrenched senator.
David Straithairn plays Murrow down to a tee (another worthy Oscar nomination) while Clooney steps from behind the camera to play Fred Friendly (best name ever), Murrow's friend and producer who helps brace the team behind the scenes for the inevitable backlash. Most vulnerable is fellow TV man Don Hollenbeck (played perfectly by Ray Wise from Twin Peaks) who takes each attack in print very personally. Elsewhere Robert Downey Jr and Patricia Clarkson have a 'secret' of their own to hide, Jeff Daniels as the CBS news division president tries to keep the whole thing from biting everyone in the ass while CBS head Frank Langella has serious doubts about taking on such a powerful and high profile figure.
Filmed in lush black and white and capturing the intensity of live TV very well (Clooney himself no stranger to it after standout episodes of ER and Fail Safe) the period detail is authentic while also isolating most of the action to the studio, a series of offices and the local bar. Added realism is given by the fact that McCarthy plays himself as Straithairn's Murrow acts to archive footage of the senator.
For all its foundations in the fifties, Good Night and Good Luck is very much about the state of America in the 21st century. Replace the word 'communist' with 'terrorist' and look at the current state of American television (not just the news) while listening to Murrow's prophetic words about media manipulation and the movie leaves a chill despite the ultimate success of those involved (not that that success doesn't come with a hefty price tag). Coupled with Syriana due here later in the year, you get a sense that Clooney really does believe he owes it to himself to use his position to ask some very hard questions as opposed to say making another throw away piece of crap. Neither film though is at all preachy and Good Night and Good Luck is highly entertaining and damn funny in places. More importantly it reminds the audience that sometimes it only takes one man to make a stand for others to start questioning the cut of the emperor’s new clothes.