Good Night, and Bad Muck: Dangerous Minds, Soothing Fuzzies
By Fernando F. Croce

Was it all for naught? Unasked, the question permeates Good Night, and Good Luck -- CBS crusader Edward R. Murrow battled McCarthy and media complacency in the 1950s, and here we are still, Bush pumping horror out of terrorist alerts and "anti-American" suspects becoming prisoners at Guantanamo. So much for evolution, though the evolution most reviewers will be taking note of is celebrity-director George Clooney's, who follows the loopy, Coenesque cartooning of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his freshman effort behind cameras, with the tight, monochromatic, hermetic recreation of another iconic, TV personality both served and hemmed in by the workings of the tube. The dangerous mind this time belongs to Murrow (David Strathairn), legendary broadcaster and shit-stirrer, who spikes the chumminess of a 1958 gathering with acid drops on the national "allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information." Rewind to 1953, "TV Is the Thing This Year" sung over the waves and the continuous bustle of CBS studios, where Murrow and his intrepid crew (which includes Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr., and Patricia Clarkson), publicly questioning the witch-hunts of the House of Un-American Activities Committee on their See It Now program in between Liberace interviews, suggest an alternative-weekly staff operating from within the New York Times.

"Go after Joe Kennedy. We'll pay for it," advises TV producer Jeff Daniels, but Murrow's journey is resolutely against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the ogre playing himself via kinescoped glimpses blown up to the big screen. McCarthy's sweaty implosion before the cameras (vide Emile de Antonio's Point of Order) punctuates Clooney's scrupulous use of stock footage, yet even his own manipulation of images from the past gets acknowledged: the Murrow team orchestrates the editing of the testimony of an elderly black woman before the congress to emphasize the senator's empty chair. Reds-alerts are in the air, rumors send newscaster Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise, lip trembling) head first into the oven, while pragmatic network chairman William Paley (Frank Langella) wonders where Truth lies, especially when it depends on paid advertisement. "We can't defend freedom at home while deserting it at home," Murrow dourly stings to a delayed cacophony of phone calls, for Clooney's unusually low-key, dignified film insists on relevance and elegance, the media itself the arena where two unsmiling gladiators fought it out over national security, the responsibility of the medium, and personal liberty. No self-congratulatory chest-beating: Murrow quits and McCarthy is sent to the back of the Senate, so that TV, taking first baby steps, might learn and mature. "This instrument can teach." Has it? Good Night, and Good Luck, period evocation and contemporary inquiry, is Clooney's lean study of the quandaries of asking questions in the media, and of crafting a political film in Hollywood.

*

Good Night, and Good Luck reportedly has roots in the McCarthyism experienced first-hand by Clooney's family. No less personal, Elizabethtown is supposed to be based on Cameron Crowe's experiences dealing with his father's death, though I posit Vanilla Sky's critical reception may have been just as strong a stimulus. The hero, shoe designer Orlando Bloom, is first heard musing on the difference between "failure" and "fiasco" after his botched latest product ends up costing the company almost a billion. Up to the dreaded office, for boss Alec Baldwin's impression of shit hitting the fan and facetiously symmetrical compositions borrowed from Wes Anderson -- after some more microwaved Jerry Maguire bits, Bloom goes home to mount a knife on his exercise machine, only for the cute suicide to be interrupted by news from home. A Billy Wilder bit, itself bungled yet followed into a diluted Wilder plotline, possibly Avanti!'s: his father's dead, so the hero has to travel back to the eponymous Kentucky burg to argue Blue State cremation over Red State burial, and bump into the required tawny Crowe beguiler, here Kirsten Dunst as a flight attendant whose pesky sunniness rivals Reese Witherspoon's. Her vibes would scare off the horniest of townies, yet she and Orlando Blah spend the night trading bite-sized cuties over cell phones and, comes morning, are already skipping around graveyards.

Welcome to Camerontown, another lolling soundtrack in search of a movie. A diligent student of Truffaut's winsome self-infatuation, Crowe knows how to sell bits of business as if they were genuine emotional-behavioral observation -- thus, Dunst fashions cameras out of hand gestures to "click" precious moments into posterity, while widowed mom Susan Sarandon works through her grief by cooking, fixing toilets, and, in some kind of nadir, doing shtick about hard-ons and tap-dancing to "Moon River" during her husband's wacky funeral reception. Not quite sure whether the Southern hospitality of the hero's clan is meant to be as overbearing as I took it, although Dunst's quirkiness is far less ambiguous in its us-folks, life-affirming whimsy, all the better to have the actress yank that shark-grin overtime while Bloom looks off somewhere, perhaps into Middle Earth. Soothing fuzziness is Crowe's aim, and, having already ironed out all the political context of early '70s rock music in favor of Summer-I-Grew-Up sitcom in Almost Famous, here ponders away on life, death, work and family, one iPod download at a time. Heartfelt and intolerable, Crowe's ungainly saga finally takes to the road for a looooong tour of Southern landmarks (Colonel Sanders' statue or the hotel where Martin Luther King was shot, it is all the same here), before the lovebirds' you-had-me-at-the-first-stalking reunion.

*

After the pitiless warmth of Elizabethtown, the attitudinist cool of Domino was welcome. For twenty seconds. Then the headache began. Following up on Man on Fire, Tony Scott's Superbowl-spot fragmentation has officially become a saturated smear: slow-mo, sped-up motion, changes in stock, aural blurs, pointless subtitles. That's before wispy celebrity-brat-made-infamous-bounty-hunter Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley) gets properly introduced, midway through a skirmish alongside fellow "warriors" Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez. Based on a true story, or "sort of," as the credits go, courtesy of the convoluted script by Donnie Darko auteur Richard Kelly, cramming more than enough narrative smog to complement Scott's degraded montage. Loot gets stolen, faces pop up (Delroy Lindo, Jacqueline Bisset, Christopher Walken, Mena Suvari, Mo'Nique, Lucy Liu, Dabney Coleman, Tom Waits, so on), while the whole she-bang wraps with an apocalyptic Las Vegas melee meant to evoke True Romance, still Scott's only good picture. Curiously, the director seems to be aiming for the surreptitious spirituality of Romance scribe Quentin Tarantino -- the shotgun amputation of an arm is scored to "Mama Told Me Not to Come," while a fireball is later staged to the final chorus of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Domino, the "angel of fire" whose coin-flip signals divine fate? An idea, like every image, splintered into a thousand useless pieces by Scott's unrelenting juicing up.


Reviewed October 20, 2005.

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