Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rhythm 'n' News

Before yet another film I’ve recently enjoyed gets superseded from the ‘Now Screening’ list with nary any other mention, I should take a moment to reflect upon Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney 2005). It tells the story of the makers of See it Now, a television news program which aired in the USA in the early fifties. In particular the film catalogues the program’s response to the methods used by Senator Joseph McCarthy as he sought to expunge his country of communists and their sympathisers through his inquiry into allegedly un-American activities. Anyone who has ever studied Arthur Miller’s The Crucible will be more than familiar with the kind of criticism that has been directed at McCarthy’s hysterical accusations. And just as Miller turned to an historical event to comment upon contemporary affairs, so Clooney, both writer and director of Good Night, and Good Luck, opines on present-day North America by revisiting the media’s response to the McCarthy Senate Committee. In taking this approach, Clooney implicates today’s journalists and media managers and owners in the witch hunt of our time, all the excesses and injustices that are perpetrated in the name of the inquisition into terrorist activities.

More than a criticism of the actions and policies of the current US Administration, Good Night, and Good Luck seems to take issue with the surfeit of opinion and the entertainment values that characterise present day journalism. In the case of the former, the film establishes its critique by showing how the See it Now production team builds its argument against the tactics of Senator McCarthy simply by showing footage of him addressing the senate inquiry and the North American public. Clooney also utilises this convention in his representation of the senator, by avoiding the use of an actor to play McCarthy; the film seamlessly splices the historical footage of McCarthy’s filmed appearances with the contemporary film stock. Of course, even unadulterated footage offers a perspective that precludes others, however the apparent integrity of the investigative journalism practiced by the makers of See it Now is contrasted sharply to the preoccupation with entertainment values in news which, it is stated, contributes to the eventual demise of the program. In Good Night, and Good Luck, the managers of the television business cite the demands of the audience who want more entertainment with their news, to whom they are obliged to respond in order to ensure the ongoing viability of their programming. Clearly, Clooney is sceptical of this argument, as is the presenter of See it Now, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) who, pre-empting Theodor W. Adorno, calls for the deployment of television as a medium that might inform and educate.

More than the examination of the events surrounding the McCarthy Committee inquiry, what I most enjoyed about this film was its representation of television as a nascent medium. The re-creation of the live broadcasts throughout Good Night, and Good Luck illustrates the way that television developed along a model established by the conventions of radio. Television’s debt to radio is further acknowledged in the various montages throughout the film where an African-American jazz band is recording in one of the sound studios at CBS. The music contributes to establishing the film’s era, but also conveys, through the pace it sets, the sense of improvisation that must have characterised the early years of television, especially when producing such politically challenging journalism. The use of black and white film also worked well, preserving the sense of the era by smoothing the transitions between the historical and contemporary stock.

I really can’t speak highly enough of Good Night, and Good Luck. George Clooney’s work as a director puts me in mind of the excitement I felt when it became apparent that Clint Eastwood was a new directorial talent. I’m not sure that Clooney ever attracted the disdain for his acting work that Eastwood did for all those spaghetti westerns, but, if I may say so, it’s a bit of a thrill to learn that such a sexy man has a political conscience and prodigious talent.

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