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Issue Date:  November 4, 2005

Media and marriage

'Good Night' examines Murrow-McCarthy clash in the 1950s; 'Squid' screenwriter revisits his parents' divorce


Good Night, and Good Luck is a short, powerful film built around the face-off between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and the mendaciously anticommunist U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis. Though a story of the 1950s, when the country was briefly terrorized by the latter’s House Committee on Un-American Activities witch-hunt, it deserves to be part of this year’s civics class. Fortunately, it’s far more entertaining than most such assignments. George Clooney, whose father was a TV anchor in Cincinnati, directed it as a tribute to Mr. Murrow and an implied criticism of the present state of TV journalism.

The title, many will remember, is how Mr. Murrow ended his broadcasts. Mr. Clooney’s decision to use black and white is a good one, suggesting the film’s timeframe. The photography is stunning, integrating significant close-ups and archival footage of Sen. McCarthy into the movie. Mr. Murrow, who first came to prominence for his radio broadcasts from England during World War II, is masterfully played by David Strathairn as an elegant, cigarette-smoking, firm-voiced but rather humorless broadcaster.

The plot focuses relentlessly on its main purpose; we learn nothing of Mr. Murrow’s private life. Made for a modest $7 million, the film is set almost entirely within the CBS studios and powerfully conveys the almost electric tension during the preparation of Mr. Murrow’s “See It Now” broadcasts. The hardworking, hard-drinking production team -- with Mr. Clooney as Fred Friendly, along with Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr. and Ray Wise -- is well aware of the risks they are running by taking on Sen. McCarthy. CBS boss William Paley (Frank Langella) knows the senator will retaliate by smearing Mr. Murrow and trying to injure the studio; Alcoa is canceling its advertising. Due to the fast-moving script by Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov, the fact that Sen. McCarthy will be on the defensive after the Senate hearings of 1954 takes nothing away from the film’s excitement.

What is particularly impressive about “Good Night, and Good Luck” is its restraint; though Mr. Clooney is deeply committed, he wants us to decide for ourselves how his film applies to today’s issues. Mr. Paley is supportive of his star reporter but realizes that the network’s sponsors must be appeased. Mr. Murrow says he has earned the right to editorial freedom by doing programs with celebrities on another CBS favorite, “Person to Person”; a segment from his interview of a smiling, self-promoting Liberace provides a brief bit of humor. Elegant jazz segments with singer Diana Reese and a small group of instrumentalists underline the story’s ups and downs. The whole film is framed by a speech given by Mr. Murrow in the late ’50s at a dinner honoring him; prophetically, he warns that the media are increasingly employed “to distract, delude, denude and isolate us.”

The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s closely observed film about the breakup of his parents’ marriage, is often bitter, sometimes funny, and always well acted. It opens with a revealing tennis game in which husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels) viciously slams the ball at wife Joan (Laura Linney), providing a disturbing lesson for their two sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). Both adults are novelists: Bernard’s early success has degenerated into unsuccessful experimentalism, while Joan’s star is rising.

The narrative centers on Walt’s gradual disillusionment with his father, whom he initially imitates uncritically while blaming his mother for everything that went wrong. This makes for some legitimate comedy as we observe Bernard solemnly explaining what a philistine is: anyone who does not agree with his taste in advanced literature and art.

The movie is good at showing the traumatic effect of divorce on the children. Both boys deal in different ways with hormonal problems. When Walt tells his father about a girl he finds attractive, Bernard only says that she does not seem very pretty, and he advises his son to “play the field.” Later, he tells Walt he might as well sleep with her once, just so he’ll know what she’s like. As for Frank, though he finds some comfort from his mother, his hidden struggle with masturbation is as painful as it is incongruous. Mr. Daniels is hilarious in the rich role of the self-absorbed father, but it is the impressive young actors who play the sons who carry the film, even though the effect of their scenes may be depressing.

Ms. Linney is gently caring as the mother, so justifiably fed up with being a martyr to a braggart husband that it is easy to sympathize with her taking up with the tennis pro we meet in the opening scene (William Baldwin). Meanwhile the father, who flounders in his attempt to provide a home for his sons on the days they stay with him, invites an attractive young student (Anna Paquin) to use an empty room in his house, further complicating relations with Walt.

Mr. Baumbach is successful in transposing the ingrown world of bookish New York intellectuals to the screen. But he fails to help us see what kept Bernard and Joan together for so long; a husband who could refer to Kafka as his “predecessor” surely provided grounds for desertion long before the official split. The explanation offered for the movie’s title, which comes at the very end, is unconvincing, but the farcical accident that grew out of a parking crisis and lands Bernard in the hospital allows us to laugh and finally to feel some sympathy for him.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes
Bernard would call you a philistine if you admitted to enjoying Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but I urge you to seek out this inventive and amusing example of animation from Britain’s Nick Park. The title characters are a plasticine man and dog whose job is to save a traditional English town from having their pumpkins and squashes devoured by a giant rabbit. The situation encourages whimsy that is delightfully mad.

National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2005

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