One of my favorite episodes of South Park is called Smug Alert! As you may remember, this is the episode where the citizens of South Park all buy hybrid cars and end up getting so self-satisfied that a dangerous cloud of smug forms over the town. At the same time, another smug storm is racing across the United States. This smug storm was created by the speech that George Clooney gave when he won the Oscar for Syriana. When those two clouds of smug meet, it’s the perfect storm. It also ends up destroying San Francisco.
The same year that Clooney was named Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, he was also nominated for directing the 2005 best picture nominee, Good Night, and Good Luck. In his speech, Clooney specifically said that he felt he was winning supporting actor to make up for not winning director and proceeded to give the speech that he would have given if he had won director.
And looking back, I think that we do have to admit that it was a very smug speech.
Fortunately, Good Night, and Good Luck has aged better than Clooney’s speech.
I do have to admit that, when I recently rewatched Good Night and Good Luck, I was a little concerned. I always manage to forget that the film starts on a really bad note. The year is 1958 and news anchorman Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) is receiving an award. As Murrow stands behind the podium, he proceeds to give a long and self-righteous speech about how television should be used not to entertain but to educate as well. And, quite frankly, he comes across like such a pompous blowhard that I was dreading the idea of having to spend the next 90 or so minutes with him.
But then, fortunately, the film entered into flashback mode and, until the final few minutes of the film, we didn’t have to listen to anymore of Murrow’s speech. The majority of Good Night and Good Luck takes place in 1953. U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (who appears in archival footage throughout the film) has declared that he has the names of communists who hold important positions in both the government and the media. Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney) defy the corporate overlords of CBS and bravely investigate and challenge McCarthy’s claims. McCarthy and his henchmen respond by trying to smear both Murrow and one of his reporters (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a communists. As always seems to happen in films about McCarthyism, another supporting character reacts to the change of communism by committing suicide. And, in this particular vision of the fight against Joseph McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow and the media save America.
Of course, if you actually make the effort to learn history, you’ll discover that it wasn’t just Edward R. Murrow who stood up to McCarthy. In fact, you’ll discover that Murrow stood up to McCarthy after several other prominent people — on both sides of the political divide — had already done so. If anything, the real-life Murrow seems to have more in common with pompous scold seen at the beginning and end of the film, as opposed to the one that we see standing up to McCarthy.
One can very legitimately debate whether or not Murrow deserves all of the credit that he’s given in this film. Still, the film does make a larger and very important point. We, as Americans, have to always be on guard against witch hunts and against demagogues and the forces of fear and paranoia that are always trying to shape our politics. And, whether or not Murrow was a hero or just a bystander, one cannot deny that the larger message of Goodnight, and Good Luck remains as relevant today as when the film was originally released.
Judging from some of his other films — The Monuments Men and the Ides of March — I don’t particularly feel that George Clooney is that good of a director. But he does do a good job with Good Night and Good Luck. (In fact, he does such a good job that you can’t help but feel that it’s the exception to the rule as far as Clooney the director is concerned.) Filmed in wonderful black-and-white and full of good performances, Good Night, and Good Luck remains surprisingly watchable.
Just avoid any George Clooney Oscar speeches while watching it. San Francisco has never recovered.