Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 1, 2006)
Of the five 2005 nominees for Best Picture, Good Night, and Good Luck looked like the one that would most appeal to me. I love learning about 20th century history, and the issues surrounding the Communist “witch hunts” of the late Forties and early Fifties intrigue me. That meant Luck sounded like a winner.
Unfortunately, the end result was much less interesting than I anticipated. Set in 1953-1954, Luck follows the reporting of CBS TV newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn). He initially begins to go after the anti-Communist campaign when the Air Force boots out a reservist named Milo Radulovich due to suspected ties to the reds. No one produces any actual evidence, so Murrow runs a story on the military’s irrational reasoning and the negative effects of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings.
From there Murrow takes after McCarthy in a more active manner. He does so despite risks to himself and others, a factor spotlighted by the worries of fellow newsman Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), an alleged “pinko”. The movie follows Murrow’s efforts and their results.
And what are those results? Not much, if we follow the film’s conclusions. We learn of McCarthy’s eventual censure in the Senate but Murrow, et al, cynically note that this probably won’t mean much in the greater scheme of things. The flick conveys a strange “can’t win – why bother?” attitude. That provokes the question: why bother to make a movie about a noted newsman’s risky crusade if it doesn’t mean much anyway?
Oddly, although Murrow’s work clearly helped prod the public backlash against McCarthy, you don’t get that feeling here. Luck fails to connect the dots with any clarity. Events happen but don’t seem to reflect the actions onscreen. There’s an almost haphazard feel to the way that the chronology proceeds, and it comes across with no urgency or drama.
I find that to be arguably the film’s biggest flaw. It’s so dispassionate that it becomes inert. I applaud the fact that director George Clooney chose to make a restrained flick without the usual showiness and hoopla, but I think he went too far in the opposite direction. Luck is overly respectful of its subject, as it lacks the heat to create an intriguing story. It keeps us at an off-putting distance and never gets involved in a significant way.
Rarely does the movie really give us the feel of the era’s atmosphere. The fear of Communism was real and pervasive, but Luck makes it look like little more than the fantasies of a sadistic senator. Whether or not any true Communist threat existed, the “Red-hunt” had terrible ramifications for many lives. Luck briefly alludes to that but fails to deliver any substantial impact in that regard.
The Hollenback character appears for little reason other than to try to add some of that emotional element. He acts as the representative of all those whose lives were ruined by the antics of McCarthy and his ilk. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t pack a punch when it looks at Hollenbeck. It never offers a clear look at why Hollenbeck felt the situation was so dire – CBS never fires him and he never goes before the feds – so his suicide appears just as a cheap heart-tugging gimmick. Yes, we get allusions of other personal problems that push Hollenbeck over the edge, but the film fails to explore these in a manner rich enough to add power to what happens.
When I look at Luck, comparisons with two other films come to mind. Clooney clearly saw 1976’s All the President’s Men as an inspiration, as both movies handle their historical events in similar ways. When I watched Men, I applauded its choice to focus on the news story at hand and not to give us the usual banal material about the characters’ lives outside of that scope. So why does the same decision in Luck seem so sterile?
Because the folks behind Men managed to bring passion to the piece. We found a sense of inner life within the characters that doesn’t appear here along with a real threat. Never do either of those elements inform Luck; it mimics the style of Men but not the drama.
I also couldn’t help but think of 2005’s Capote while I watched Luck. Both films focus on specific events in the lives of important men, and both take place in roughly the same time period. Both also treat matters in a dispassionate manner.
They diverge when we look at their main characters. As Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman delivered a strong performance in which he brought out the role’s inner life in small, subtle ways. Strathairn never manages to make his Murrow seem like much more than an impersonation. He gets the mannerisms and delivery down pat, but we don’t see Murrow as much more than a stiff cutout.
I respect and like Strathairn, and I don’t blame him for the role’s shortcomings. The flaws come from the script, as the text gives Strathairn nowhere to go in the part. It treats Murrow as hero and patriot with no room for human flaws or other interpretations. Hoffman was allowed to room to deliver a three-dimensional performance as Capote, and the story encouraged that. Luck prefers to view Murrow in a narrow manner and doesn’t give the actor any space to open up the part.
That’s one main problem with the film: its simplicity. It depicts basic good vs. evil without any life or depth. Good Night, and Good Luck focuses on one side of its story in a stiff, buttoned down manner and doesn’t manage to bring any energy to the story. There’s clearly a vivid tale to tell but the movie lacks passion or drama.