George Clooney is shaping up to be one of the most important filmmakers we have in the 21st century. Too many people get into the movies — especially in Hollywood — for the glamour and pizzazz of it all (to say nothing of the money). The purpose of most fame is to cultivate itself, and if you’re cynical, screen icons from Marlene Dietrich and Errol Flynn to Julia Roberts and Arnold Schwarzenegger have been part of the endlessly self-referencing celebrity economy.
Plenty of the biggest stars around pick films designed purely to make them look good (no full names, but a couple of guys called Cruise and Pitt top the list) against various historical or cultural backgrounds while they battle everything from aliens to terrorists to the demons in their own souls. And Clooney could easily have joined their ranks, evolving into just another bland big screen hero while he lives in multimillion dollar mansions hot-tubbing with different supermodels every night (mind you, he is resolutely single).
But unlike most of his contemporaries, he’s vocal, he’s opinionated, he has something to say. After the Princess of Wales’ death in 1997, he issued an on-camera statement damning the paparazzi for the antics it was believed contributed to the accident.
True, he’s been in fairy floss; films like Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker denoted his status in the Hollywood snake pit — big enough to headline, not big enough for any sort of control. And recent entries into his CV from Intolerable Cruelty to Ocean’s Eleven have exuded the boyish charm that makes the ladies’ hearts flutter and been entertaining or cool.
But it’s when Clooney has the reigns and wants to tell you something about the state of the world that he really shines. We’ve already seen it to a small degree in the character of Archie Gates, the Gulf War platoon captain Clooney played in David O Russell’s Three Kings, the first mainstream American film to bluntly criticise US foreign policy.
And it’s the films that have his creative DNA in them — the upcoming Syriana (about the tangled web of politics, money and oil in the Middle East) and Good Night, and Good Luck that are the most exciting, the latter a prophetic warning about our times that reminds us about history’s nasty habit of repeating itself.
It’s the postwar boom of the 1950’s and the (some say unholy) alliance of the rise in media and consumer culture is in full sway. Upstart Senator Joseph McCarthy is grandstanding his way to the top by scaremongering about the communists he declares have infiltrated all levels of government, academia and business. McCarthy wasn’t picky — if you once read a socialist newspaper article, that was enough to brand you a commie, and careers and reputations across every socioeconomic level of America were being summarily trashed.
Nobody dared stand up to McCarthy until the producer/presenter team of Edward Murrow (Strathairn) and Fred Friendly (Clooney) of CBS show See It Now. In between fluff pieces, Murrow is determined to speak out against McCarthy’s Nazi-like propaganda methods, and the show launches an all-out assault by pleading with viewers to remember some simple truths in the debate, among them the strongest quote in the film (which Murrow actually said); ‘We cannot defend freedom abroad by abandoning it at home.’
As director and co-writer, Clooney pulls off a brilliant trick. Not only is the film shot in black and white, but the costumes, architecture, props and every detail of the era is picture perfect, yet both Murrow and Clooney could easily be talking about the modern world of detention without counsel, racial profiling and the invoking of the emotionally loaded term ‘terrorist’ by Western governments to restrict everything from immigration to political debate.
As Murrow, David Strathairn is the peak of a powerhouse acting pyramid, with performances from all the support performers that mark the high points of several careers. But the masterstroke of Good Night, and Good Luck is that it does what a movie should; it uses drama to say something. Plenty — in fact most — films are missing one or the other.
The story of Murrow and McCarthy could probably have been told in a non fiction book of cold facts (in fact, it probably has been), or even a documentary, owing to the archival footage that exists. But Clooney crafts the movie so we live the tribulations with the people involved, we feel the fear they shared with a whole country and we cheer for the stand Murrow took, not just against the terrorism of debate, but his prophecy about the asinine future television faced if corporate interests continued to hobble it.
If you love the movies for the performance, the directing talent, the attention to staging detail, the scripting or the message, you’ll love Good Night, and Good Luck. If all those things are important to you, it might be the best and most important movie you’ll see this year.