Arrow shirts, furrowed brows, steely replies, and the Hemingway ethos of coolness-under-fire abound in Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s depiction of the televised joust between the newscaster Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Photographed by Robert Elswit in black-and-white so stark that realism crosses over into Andy Warholian pop realism, this movie presents the CBS news bureau of 1953 as the epitome of buttoned-down Eisenhower-era sobriety, though fired up by patriotism and liberal machismo.
The Murrow team is eager to take on the bully from Wisconsin but you can tell from the taut visages and nervous silences that the real menace to the newscasters doesn’t emanate from the Senate but from CBS President Bill Paley (entertainingly played by Frank Langella as a six-foot-three glower), who felt that courageous political editorializing was costing the corporation advertisers, and that “people want to enjoy themselves and don’t want a civics lesson.” The film’s conclusion feels Hemingwayesque indeed in the way moral victory is achieved hand in hand with material defeat: McCarthy falls, but Paley marginalizes CBS’s informational programming. (I thought of Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea catching his fish only to see it eaten by sharks.)
The vivid but limited triumph of Good Night is its stylized rendition of the CBS News workplace. Thanks to Elswit’s photography and the set designs of James Bissell, the newsmen appear to be creatures of their own medium. It is a black-and-white world devoid of sunlight, greenery, and perhaps-considering the all-pervading cigarette smoke-oxygen. Much of the office lighting seems merely the glare cast by the countless TV screens attached to the walls. The starkness of the décor mirrors and pays tribute to the peculiarly spartan romanticism of these liberal patriots who fought for American traditions in an era when men wore hats and didn’t remove their ties even when they worked past midnight.
David Strathairn’s performance is just as vividly ascetic as the production. Perhaps because he bears practically no resemblance to Murrow, the actor has worked hard to capture the characteristic rhythms, gestures, and facial expressions of the newscaster, particularly the gimlet glare with which Murrow transfixed the viewer whenever he lifted his eyes from his text and looked into the camera with the righteous gravity of a vulture who’s just been poring over the Constitution.
Though I enjoyed its artful claustrophobia, I was puzzled by this movie’s mode of existence. The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov falls between two stools: it lacks the factual multifariousness of a good documentary but also lacks the free-ranging richness of historical fiction. Viewers unacquainted with the period may not understand the story’s historical context-the nervousness induced by Mao’s recent capture of mainland China; the trial of the Rosenbergs; the way that the Popular Front of the 1930s drew many patriotic Americans into Communist orbits-and this movie won’t enlighten them. On the other hand, the characters aren’t psychologically mined the way fictional characters can be. Thus, when a newscaster, who has publicly praised Murrow’s program and received a brief slam from a right-wing columnist, proceeds to commit suicide, I didn’t know what to make of it. Was the man’s career seriously threatened? Was there a dark political secret in his past? Was he simply a neurotic? Good political fiction would have probed this situation. I suppose Good Night, and Good Luck should be praised for avoiding the hysterical conjectures of an Oliver Stone movie but, in drama, dryness is only a bit better than hysteria. If you want to see how a movie can be attentive to facts while not being intimidated by them, how it can avoid soap opera while still using fictional methods to plumb character and culture, rent the DVD of Robert Redford’s superb Quiz Show, another exploration of the supposedly stodgy yet endlessly fascinating Eisenhower era.
Another landmark act of civic courage is recounted in North Country: a class-action suit brought by female miners against their company for permitting sexual harassment by male coworkers. However, as the credits acknowledge, the case only “inspired” the movie. Using the nonfiction book, Class Action by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler as a springboard, director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and scriptwriter Michael Seitzman felt free to invent and psychologize, to employ stream-of-consciousness, and to flash forward and backward in time. The result may or may not hew close to the facts but, except for some slushy domestic scenes and a somewhat contrived ending, the movie conveys the sting and messiness of reality.
The heroine, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is a loser, a good-looking loser, and her physical attractiveness is close to the core of her haplessness. Born in an impoverished section of northern Minnesota where the only secure jobs for nonprofessionals are in iron mining, Josey has been sexually preyed upon since adolescence, and her response has been to hook up with one predator after another, climaxing in marriage to a wife beater. (Theron does a good job at suggesting the furtive, sputteringly feisty personality of a young woman whose physical charms can evoke both protectiveness and abuse from men, sometimes from the same man.) Just past thirty and trying to support two children, she summons up the strength to leave her husband and get a job with the same mining company for which her disapproving father works. With her first paycheck giving her a sense of independence, Josey is at first willing to put up with the sexual taunts of her male coworkers, but those taunts soon become outright abuse, a manifestation of sadism fueled by self-righteousness. The men feel that the very few female workers are taking jobs away from male breadwinners. Beyond that, some of them (including Josie’s ex-boyfriend) take pleasure in venting their wrath on a handsome woman, and their wives later gang up on her because anybody this pretty must be a tramp trying to seduce their husbands. When Josie complains to management and owners, she becomes a squealer to whom anything can be done.
For any story in which an individual gets hammered by a group, the test of its artistry lies not in how sorry we feel for the victim-we can’t help but sympathize-but in how believably the group’s cruelty is portrayed. The striking thing about From Here to Eternity (book and film), for instance, was James Jones’s demonstration that the Army’s unfairness was often inextricably linked to its cohesion. Caro and Seitzman understand the same thing about the miners, whose behavior is never excusable but always understandable. To understand is not always to forgive but may serve as a bulwark against smugness. North Country is angry on behalf of its heroine and all women who must fight male tribalisms, but the anger (unlike the anger of the miners) never turns self-righteous or self-indulgently derisive.