20 January 2008

Movielog, Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck, 2005
Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Directed by George Clooney
93 minutes

One of the things I'm going to be doing with these movielog entries is to use the film itself as a sort of jumping-off point for discussions of issues raised (at least in my mind) relating to other issues. So I won't be doing a real review here, and will be giving away some spoilers. Consider Yourself Warned.

Firstly (and this is minor), one of the consequences of having a Netflix account and using it to catch up on a bunch of classic movies is that I watch so many brilliant, classic films that the merely excellent seem, well, merely excellent. Good Night, and Good Luck is one of the latter. It is well-acted, well-directed, the cinematography is excellent, etc. etc. etc., but compared to Children of Men or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia or Ghostbusters it's really not that special.

That said, Clooney deserved his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the direction is competent, the script well-written and giving insight into character, the structure of the movie gives us a great deal of insight into the television business of the 50s (something Clooney, growing up with parents in the industry, knows a lot about), yadda yadda yadda. It's a good flick, worth seeing, all of that. But.

The film got me thinking about the nature of political films/TV shows/books/whatever. Clooney's film is largely a sort of parable of a hero, however true the events of the film (and, not being a historian, I cannot comment), Clooney is really making a statement to his fellow artists and to reporters today, making direct comparisons to the way that the Bush administration is covered by the media. And while Clooney has made the film he wanted to make, it sits somewhat roughly with me.

Why? Well, consider a scene towards the very end of the film, in which William Paley, the chief executive of CBS* (played excellently by Frank Langella) is speaking to Murrow and Fred Friendly about cutbacks in Murrow's program. Murrow is taking the high road, arguing that Paley's attempts to destroy the show are based on political cowardice on Paley's (and, by extension, CBS's) part. Paley replies by questioning Murrow's reasoning for not defending Alger Hiss. "Because you didn't want to be seen defending a known communist," Paley intones. "Everybody makes compromises, even you." To which Murrow has no reply.

Now, of course there are pragmatic reasons why Murrow didn't want to defend Hiss -- it wasn't directly related to the story he was telling, defending Hiss would only muddy the waters, etc. But this moment shows the humanity in both Murrow and Paley; it shows that the decisions made by both characters are not black-and-white, and while Murrow's actions were undoubtedly heroic, even he had points he would not cross. (This is also shown in the character of Don Hollenbeck, who is attacked in the media and eventually commits suicide, whom Murrow left hanging in the wind.)

None of this reduces the quality of the heroism which Murrow actually performed, but a greater emphasis on these elements might help to give the story more dramatic tension. What was it like for Paley, having to defend Murrow's actions even as far as he did, having to cajole sponsors into continuing to support the controversial news program, making decisions about the health of the television network he loved against the rightness of the cause his reporters were fighting for? In this film, he is mostly a villain, but in another film he might be a sort of tragic hero.

One of my favorite films about politics is Oliver Stone's Nixon. (Scratch that, it's one of my favorite films on any topic, ever.) Nixon is a reviled figure in modern-day politics, and a viewer would feel justified approaching the film for the first time assuming that Stone would demolish Nixon's character, running roughshod over his accomplishments, showing the former President as unremittingly evil. Yet Stone provides a sympathetic portrait of Richard Nixon, putting his triumphs and his losses in their proper context, and when Nixon commits evils like bombing Cambodia, the viewer is left wondering if they, in that situation, would really have behaved differently.

Art represents life. Most artists who try to use their art to promote their politics do it badly, simplistically, magnanimously. If you portray those opposed to you as simplistic villains, you make a simplistic political point, and erode the complexity of the real world until it is an unrealistic black and white. Reflecting the real world by portraying your political opposition is not just good art, but good politics -- in great political art your opposition should see themselves represented accurately, even if the point of the piece is that they should be wrong.

Else how are you to convince anyone?

*Although I always think of this William Paley, due to my background in history of biology.

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