Sunday, February 12, 2006

Oscar Evaluation: Good Night, and Good Luck

Awhile back, Ann Coulter, the unofficial fluffer for the neo-conservative movement, started arguing that history had mistreated poor Joseph McCarthy who, she claims, was actually a true patriot doing his level best to fight an actual menace.

While I don’t think that anyone would deny that Communism was a genuine threat to the free world, and I don’t think that many would deny that there was a legitimate concern with regards to Communist agents trying to infiltrate the government, it astonishes me that anyone would insist that McCarthy’s tactics were anything less than a politically motivated witch hunt of the first order.

Good Night, and Good Luck is not the first movie to address the McCarthy era, nor is it the best (I would suggest that The Crucible deserves that honor, in spite of its careful obliqueness), but the simple fact that there are those who would try to portray McCarthyism as a good thing does indicate that it is a necessary movie. Beyond that, there are strong resonances between the days of the HUAC and our own times when people are -- to my utter horror and astonishment -- insisting that there are merits to domestic spying, detention without trial and, even, torture as a legitimate tool of interrogation; facts which I am certain influenced the production of Good Night, and Good Luck.

The film details the very public battle between legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and McCarthy. In a stroke of absolute genius, McCarthy isn’t played by an actor. Instead, they use actual footage of McCarthy, including his infamous on-air rebuttal to Murrow. An interesting film anecdote is that studio executives who saw an early screening were concerned that the guy playing McCarthy was a bit too over the top.

Murrow is played by David Strathairn. It is said that a great actor can so perfectly assume a character that you don’t question the reality of the character. If this is a valid standard, then Strathairn is, indeed, one of the best actors I’ve had the joy of witnessing. He doesn’t look anything like Murrow but he so perfectly captures the mannerisms -- vocal and characteristic -- of Murrow that it didn’t even occur to me that he looked like anyone else but Murrow. To put this into context, it is as if a 5 foot 10 actor managed to not only play Abraham Lincoln, but also managed to convince the audience that he was actually 6 foot 6.

It is a stark movie. The sets are stark. The acting is stark. The dialog is stark. It is shot in a stark version of black and white that makes a typical Noir film seem downright cheerful by comparison. It is the starkness of the film, in fact, that ultimate ends up detracting from it. The film strives for an austere rationalism which it does achieve, but at the expense of emotional involvement. A friend of mine says that it’s almost as if the film has intimacy issues. While I can appreciate the fact that the film is making a strong case for reason in public debate, and showing the power of reason when it comes to dealing with tyrants, the fact remains that the film doesn’t engage the audience as much as it should.

I do believe that it is an Oscar Worthy pick. Indeed, I liked it better than Capote, which is a film that can’t be faulted for a lack of emotion. Never the less, I do wish that the direction was just a bit more emotive and a bit less stark. Creatures like McCarthy should, I think, evoke some emotion. One can rationally condemn monsters while, at the same time, being disgusted as mad as hell at them, too.

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