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{Oscar Nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (David Straithairn), Cinematography, Art Direction, Original Screenplay, Director (George Clooney)}

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK was written and directed by George Clooney. I mention this not because of my usual maxim that the quality of a movie depends far more on the Writer and Director than the stars, but because it’s George Clooney. I’ll explain why that’s important in a minute.

The film looks at Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “Witch Hunt” for hidden Communists that lasted from 1950-1956, or more specifically, how famous news journalist Edward R. Murrow responded to it via his television program See It Now.

I need to give some background, because the movie assumes the audience is familiar with McCarthy’s actions in his rabid pursuit of Communist spies and sympathizers, and that you agree out of hand that the whole affair was a Very Bad Thing. On the latter score you’ll get no argument from me. However, I don’t think matters are quite so simple.

The problem with judging the morality of history is not only that we didn’t live through it, but that we know how it ended. During the actual events, it’s usually not clear-cut what is the right thing to do.

Let me give you a real-world example: Most people are aware that a few months before 9/11, the president had in his daily briefing the memo that Al Qaeda might try to highjack planes and send them into buildings. Why didn’t they do anything? You might ask. Do you honestly think that if this memo represented a credible threat backed with intelligence they wouldn’t have? Unless you Inner Conspiracy nut runs deep, you do not. We hear about the memo after and ask why something wasn’t done, ignoring all the context. In other words, there were briefings every day, each containing terrorism alerts and updates with plans and concoctions that might be brewing, and nothing to set any one thing apart. (Hundreds of which, I might add, have yet to happen.) If the government knew Al Qaeda’s September 11th plans of course they would have taken more decisive action. Should they have been more aware? That’s a different question. I say yes, but again, I don’t think anyone actually was guilty of collusion; they just didn’t know.

To use the same group of people in a different light, think about Camp X-Ray down in Guantanamo Bay for a moment. Hundreds of suspected terrorists are being held there, many swooped up in the battlefields of Afghanistan (without uniform, to designate their military affiliation.) Many human-rights and Left-leaning groups have criticized the operation, arguing that these people are being held indefinitely without charges. The government responds they were not uniformed soldiers, outlined by the Geneva Conventions. I’m not trying to get into that. Here’s what I’m saying: Let’s say that Bush let every one of those people go tomorrow, and two months from now planes fly into Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Capitol, the Sears Tower, and the Sydney Opera House.

You wouldn’t hear from Human Rights groups then. Who’d you’d hear from is every government in the world, wondering why on Earth Bush let the people go who perpetrated such atrocities.

I’m not saying the X-Ray situation is right or wrong. What I am saying is that because September 11 hit so many people by surprise, and because the nature of the enemy is not familiar with us, there is a real push to be overzealous in prosecuting the war.

And sometimes that leads to people’s rights being trampled.

Let me repeat: It doesn’t make it right. I’m just saying that the people who do these things are not ALWAYS evil. Sometimes they are scared. Sometimes they are galvanized into action. Usually they are trying to protect their people, their government, and sometimes it goes too far. Way too far.

A great example of this is the Internment Camps Canada and the US had during WWII. Anyone Japanese, of Japanese descent, or in some cases just unlucky enough to be “yellow” were put in these camps during the war. These weren’t the Jewish Ghettos of Germany, but still: we look at that today and say, “Huh?”

They should have said it then. But people were scared. Pearl Harbor shook the confidence of America, which hadn’t been attacked on its own soil like that since 1812. They acted. They overreacted.

This brings us back to the Great Red Scare of the ‘50s. Russia was the big bad enemy, and even though the Cold War never went hot, in some ways that made matters worse. For one, there was no actual battle to plan for, no clear military objective (like there had been against Hitler). This was a war for supremacy of the Earth. It involved spies and intrigue and all that stuff that seems almost quaint and romantic now.

Oh yeah: it involved the possibility of everyone getting killed. That sounds trite, but you young folk don’t realize how real the danger was—and more importantly, the fear. Ask your parents about “duck and cover” drills in school. They seem silly now, with what we know about nuclear war, but it’s all they had.

What I’m saying is that the stakes were much higher than we realize. When Russia’s Communism days were all over we found out that they never were as powerful as we thought, but we didn’t know that. (And before you gloat, we also found out that we were mere hours away from a total nuclear war involving Cuba, much closer than we realized. If your parents lived East of the Mississippi, the chances are 50/50 you wouldn’t be here now.)

This brings us back to McCarthy, who became convinced that Communists were everywhere, in the government, in Hollywood, in your back yard. McCarthy was a paranoid and unstable man and yet, he wasn’t completely wrong. Again, now that Communist Russia has fallen, we have discovered that there were many more Communist spies in the government (and yes, Hollywood) than anyone originally believed. (For more information on this, see the VENNONA Project.)

That doesn’t exculpate Senator McCarthy. Even if his paranoid visions were completely accurate, his plan was so poorly executed it was bound to fail. He forced people to come to his hearings, harassed and badgered them on national TV, assumed they were guilty, belittled them. All that’s going to do is put people’s back up. Ruining the reputations of innocent people will make everyone else uncooperative.

You’d think McCarthy would have at least been savvy enough to know his escapades would eventually backfire. Then again, maybe not. He didn’t live in the media age. He didn’t understand how things play on TV.

I realize all of this is a lot of background for the movie, but the odds are you don’t know, and besides, I don’t want to talk about the plot at all, so I have to talk about something.

(I was going to talk about Edward R. Murrow, of whom sadly most teenagers only know about because Xander mentioned him on Buffy the Vampire Slayer once. I know it seems crazy to believe, but newscasters used to have the respect of the nation, and people assumed if their favorite broadcaster told them something, it was true.)

Hyperion’s Rating System

Suspension of Disbelief: 2. Very real, but you have to assume some of the lines are put there by the writer more than what real people might have had the timing to say.

Genre Grade: In a way this is a Biopic, although of such a limited time-frame that it doesn’t count. I guess you could call it Historical Event. The film covers how Edward R. Murrow fought back against McCarthy. Strangely, 3 of the 5 nominees do exactly this. Anyway, B.

Sex/Violence? None

Family Film: Sure if your family likes political discussions.

Asskickingness: it’s kind of cool how it all comes down, so I’ll generously give GOOD LUCK a 15.

Pantheon Percentile: A file film, if ultimately not weighty enough to sit alongside the biggies. 80.

Of course, this film wasn’t made to footnote a historical oddity. Even if I wasn’t aware of Clooney’s political views, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK sort of hits you over the head with symbolism that this kind of thing could happen again. (And is! The implication seems to be.)

Maybe you think that too. For sure there is an effort by some to attack anyone who disagrees with them, but that goes beyond parties and causes to politics in general. And despite any myopia, I thin it’s clear that things aren’t as bad as they used to me. If the movie shows us anything, it shows us that.

Just because Clooney is a liberal, or he overstates his point, does not mean the suppression of dissent isn’t still happening, or isn’t a real threat. I think because we know Hollywood actors tend to be overly dramatic we might dismiss their fears, and that’s just as wrong as assuming things are horrible because we don’t agree with the party in power at any particular moment.

Maybe I shouldn’t have brought any of that up. After all, how often do I say that you should judge a movie for what it is and not any of the trappings around the movie?

By that standard, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK is a fine film. David Straithairn is nominated, and while I wouldn’t have put him in (how did Eric Bana not get a nod?), he does a great job. The rest of the cast is great too, and the direction, slick, black and white, full of magic, is a great effort for a first-time director, hell; for anybody.

I guess I’m just a little confused why GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK is nominated for 6 Oscars. At barely 90 minutes it just doesn’t feel like the kind of film that usually gets noticed. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the movie, and found it informative and delightful in its own way, but is it a big enough deal for all of this? How do we justify overlooking 8-10 films better (at least on my list)?

I can only conclude that George Clooney is the major reason. Well, Hollywood likes Message Movies, to be sure. They really like Message Movies that attack Republicans. But even sweeter is when those Message Movies are made by good-looking movie stars.

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