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Speaking truth to power: Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck.

A Journalist’s How-To Guide
By Shawn Stone

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Directed by George Clooney

If the journalistic heroes of the 1970s were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the hero of the 1950s was Edward R. Murrow. While Watergate’s dynamic duo brought down a president the old-fashioned way, with dogged reporting and research, Murrow did something simpler and yet more daring. He used his position as the most respected broadcast journalist in America to bring down a political demagogue—and by extension, initiate the collapse of an entire movement—simply by pointing out that the emperor had no clothes. The parallels with the current political situation are obvious and clearly intentional.

It’s a big subject: U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) was a bully and drunk who abused his position to hunt phantom Communists. His willingness to use hearsay or the flimsiest evidence to ruin lives and careers scared everyone, from liberals in the press to the Republican president of the United States. In Good Night, and Good Luck, director and cowriter George Clooney (who also plays CBS producer Fred Friendly) dramatizes how Murrow (David Strathairn) and his reporters at CBS took on McCarthy in a low-key style that emphasizes process.

It’s a smart move. McCarthy’s crimes were large enough to need no elaboration. Shooting Good Night, and Good Luck in black & white, so actual film of McCarthy could be integrated with the drama, was even smarter. (Black & white has the added benefit of making everything seem like it’s really 1953.) As Murrow did, Clooney lets McCarthy hang himself.

As ever, Clooney proves he’s an excellent casting director. Frank Langella exudes power as CBS chief William S. Paley. Ray Wise is affectingly tormented as red-baited anchorman Don Hollenbeck. The rest of the actors—Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey, Jr.—are all very good. And Strathairn will get an Oscar nomination.

In his first film, the underappreciated Chuck Barris bio Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney’s perfect re-creations of the Gong Show and Newlywed Game sets seemed fetishistic. And here the sets, the clothes, the grooming, the cigarette smoke, the scotch . . . it’s all apparently perfect. (There was even a discussion on one Internet newsgroup about the presence of 35mm film cans in the studio: Didn’t TV news shoot exclusively in 16mm back then? Broadcast veterans chimed in with an explanation, proving the props correct.)

Unlike in too many costume dramas, however, the costumes are never more interesting than the drama. With this larger scale, equally meticulous presentation of a slice of 1950s America, it seems likely that Clooney, a TV newsman’s son, simply shares a journalist’s desire to get it right.

The re-creations aren’t just about the clothes and vices. The formal manner of delivering the news in the film seems like a lost art; too many of today’s talking heads, even on noncommercial outlets, make broadcast news seem like amateur hour. And Murrow himself, with his precise formality and liberal use of Shakespeare, seems to have scared even the film’s distributor: His wonderful admonition, “We will not walk in fear, one of another,” is dumbed down on the movie’s poster to “We will not walk in fear of one another.”

The film counts on us to ask the obvious questions, namely, “When was TV news ever this serious?” and “What happened?” The explicit answers come once, with Paley’s final speech to Murrow and Friendly about how people just want to be entertained, not given a “civics lecture.” Clooney gets the point across in a sly way all through the film, however. In the lobby of the CBS building, there are two televisions, side-by-side, showing what’s on in Los Angeles and New York. The sitcoms and variety shows are always on, like video wallpaper, waiting to take over.

Love For Sale

Shopgirl

Directed by Anand Tucker

A coltish young woman, Mira- belle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), stands forlornly behind the glove counter at Saks in L.A., watching as overdressed beautiful people pass by. Nobody notices her, a fact which, despite the probable loss of commission, seems to suit Mirabelle. Somehow—be it the offbeat vintage clothing, the Penguin paperbacks by her futon bedside, the shabby pickup she drives—we, the audience, get the clear sense that she is above the commonality of mere trade. And yet, nobody else in Shopgirl, the movie based on Steve Martin’s novella, seems to think so. Nobody, that is, until slacker Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and gentlemanly (and wealthy) Ray Porter (Steve Martin) both take a sudden interest. When it rains it pours.

Ostensibly a romantic comedy, in which two disparate characters vie for the attentions of Mirabelle, Shopgirl, on closer look, is a wistful treatise on the propensity of love and romance to transform even the dreariest existence into something ripe with possibility. Once Mirabelle begins an affair with the courtly Ray, people start to notice her, and it’s not all about the designer duds Ray throws her way. Trampy coworker Lisa (Bridgette Wilson- Sampras), for instance, eyes Mirabelle’s new glow with competitive zest, seeking at the earliest opportunity to make her own conquest of the mystery man. (This little subplot, by the way, leads to very funny consequences.) The question isn’t so much how can the hapless Jeremy compete, because this isn’t about a lover’s triangle; but how will the hint of romance catapult Jeremy from, well, zero to hero?

Thankfully, the answers to Jeremy’s dilemma, as well as the key to Mirabelle’s (or even Ray’s) happiness, are not easily had. Working from Martin’s script, director Anand Tucker pays loving attention to details, like how the middle-age Ray would react, physically, to the hazardous temporary furnishings in Mirabelle’s Silver Lake apartment, in the process evoking the distinct differences—and not only in age—between the two. Herein lies a crucial part of the story, and yet also a disturbing undertone. Whereas Porter has multiple residences, fancy cars, private jets, etc., all of which he offers, in some fashion, to Mirabelle, she has only herself to give. OK, perhaps, but this makes the scene in which Mirabelle lays herself, odalisque-style, on Ray’s bed, as if to say “take all of me,” creepy; one can’t help but think of what a major turn-on this has to be for Ray, as well as a number of men of a certain age in the audience.

The ick factor is raised a notch by the tiresome, unnecessary narration. The result is that (a) the viewer wonders “is that Ray talking, or Steve Martin?”; and (b) does Martin really think that I need him to tell me what I can clearly see for myself, up there on the screen? This is at its absolute worst in the film’s conclusion, when what should have been a lovely, quiet moment between two lovers, turns into a clear case of a writer in love with his own words. It detracts, too, from Jeremy’s crucial, oft amusing, road to awareness—a road which leads him back to a bruised yet wiser Mirabelle, and is, indeed, essential to the movie’s gentle truths about love and discovery. Paired with the accompaniment of Barrington Pheloung’s throbbing, soaring score, the best of Shopgirl transcends its few false moves, so we end up with what is largely an exquisite, if slightly arty, ode to longing, and to belonging.

—Laura Leon

Waiting For Saddam

Jarhead

Directed by Sam Mendes

“It was shortly after meeting Lt. Fitch that I realized I might’ve made a mistake.”

So says Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new recruit at Fort Pendleton who has just had an encounter with the dehumanizing treatment that will be part of his training. The year is 1991, and Swoff is soon to be shipped out to the Middle East for the first Persian Gulf War. An intellectual who reads Camus and joined the Marines to escape his dysfunctional family, Swoff rapidly adjusts to his mission: to kill without compunction. “I was hooked,” he says after realizing during rifle practice that he’s got a deadly aim.

Adapted by William Broyles Jr. from Swofford’s best-selling book, and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Jarhead is a beautifully made and eye-opening slice of modern warfare life, told through the narrow but harrowing perspective of one Marine. Swoff is enlisted into an elite scout sniper unit. As a shooter, he will not be doing battle in the heat of combat, but will be called on to kill in a calm and calculated fashion. Yet most of the film is build-up to this moment of engagement, told as a series of powerful incidents that explore the mentality of young men in the military, and the effects of their military experiences on their psyches. His unit also includes a clueless, timid recruit, a maniac who kills camels, and his closest friend, the enigmatic Troy (Peter Sarsgaard).

The unit is headed by the tough but rational Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a religious man who tells the unit without irony: “Thou shalt not kill? Fuck that shit.” Perturbingly enough, the men don’t need urging to become killing machines—they have little appreciation for the sanctity of life to begin with. Since Mendes’ most adroit skill is to bring out the humanness of the recruits (aided by the crack acting) even when they are at their most crazed, we never feel alienated from them. And while he keeps a close focus on the unit, the larger picture is alluded to. Every time the price of crude oil rises, Bush sends in more troops. The unit’s sophisticated equipment breaks down in the sand. Chemical weapons are a new and barely understood threat. The enemy is an unseen abstraction.

Out in the desert, the men are bored, sexually frustrated, anxious about wives and girlfriends back home, and scared. “It’s the bombs,” Swoff says to a reporter, long before he actually gets near one. As the months pass without action, the men change from frat boys to lunatics. As Swoff explains, the circus-like environment within their camp helps them to feel invincible. But perhaps because of his intelligence, Swoff starts to crack, and his instability adds to the surreal atmosphere (played up by the hallucinatory cinematography of the great Roger Deakins). When the unit is deployed deeper into the oil-soaked desert, their isolated patrol seems to shear away from reality completely. Mendes deliberately evokes Apocalypse Now throughout, but instead of the smell of napalm in the morning, it’s the sight of flaming oil geysers in the night that give the mission a fantastical allure.

And then as suddenly as it began, it’s over. “All wars are different, and all wars are the same,” says Swoff, a perspective that Jarhead succeeds at illustrating. But whether Swoff has been changed by his experience for the better or for the worse, he doesn’t know. And neither does the audience.

—Ann Morrow


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