A couple of weeks ago we saw Good Night, and Good Luck, the title taken from journalist Edward Murrow’s sign-off to his weekly current affairs programme. It’s a lovely little film, shot in gorgeous black and white, and focussed to the point of insularity on its subject matter. Murrow (David Strathairn) was a journalist who spoke out against Senator Joe McCarthy’s infamous communist ‘witch-hunt’ hearings in the 1950s. The film is a very simple, very straightforward telling of a few short weeks at the peak of that period when Murrow and his colleagues chose to speak out, risking great personal consequences, against Joe McCarthy’s methods and what they saw as a violation of the most fundamental human rights.
So simple is the film that it borders on docudrama, like a big screen edition of Days That Shook the World. Only the sardonic use of radio jazz songs to punctuate the film lends it a sense of artifice. The film’s main failing is its inability to set this intimate story in the larger context of the era. Unless you already understand the scope of what Senator McCarthy had set in motion, you can only make broad inferences about the persecution which Murrow was attempting to counter. Nonetheless the film makes some powerful points by quietly allowing us to watch key moments of injustice, including genuine film footage of the hearings and McCarthy himself. Particularly powerful, and never overplayed, is the gut-wrenching fear which grips the main characters as they make their play. It’s this palpable tension which hits home as we observe journalists who otherwise appear to be going about their jobs with a degree of calm professionalism. The performances, including Strathairn’s commanding lead and unshowy support from co-writer George Clooney, are excellent. The dialogue, especially Murrow’s solemn monologues, is literate and compelling; moreso than anything you’re likely to hear emerge from the mouth of a modern TV journalist.
Clearly and deliberately this is a film with great relevance to the current political climate in the US. The film’s lack of context makes generalising its message all the easier: that in a time when anyone who speaks out against government wrongs is labelled unpatriotic, it is the duty of any patriot to speak out. The film believes passionately in freedom of speech, and in the immutability of human rights no matter the political climate or the justifications for violating them. Although it remains a small film, it succeeds in both personalising and generalising a very dark, very modern time in American history.