Friday, March 03, 2006

The Oscar Race, Part the Fourth: Containment

Today's installment regards Good Night, and Good Luck.

This is a movie defined by, and in some ways about, its containment. Its characters (but for Joe McCarthy, and calling him a "character" in this context is questionable, as all the movie's other characters are played by actors and McCarthy is played by film and television clippings from the '50s of the real Joe McCarthy) are the very model of restraint: even when they have passionate beliefs, as have David Strathairn's Murrow and George Clooney's Friendly, or passions for one another, as have Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson's secretly married co-workers Joe and Shirley, these passions are as muted as the coloring of the black-and-white movie.

It's a very intelligent artistic choice in many ways. In the 1950s, McCarthy's compatriots were the models of hysteria and directness, fearing anything that was below the surface (the opposite of the political style of the right today in some ways). Yet the lifestyle of the '50s is more often than not about keeping things below the surface; that in fact defines the very concept of the Cold War, or at least the concept of calling the Cold War a war. It was about what was below the surface, what was happening in secret and not in open combat, and yet the dangers of what was below the surface were openly acknowledged and treated as threats. The same might indeed be said of household life in the fifties, at least as portrayed in art and the stories of older people I know: what was below the surface was wordlessly acknowledged as important, in fact as a guiding force of the household, but for the most part remained below the surface. Murrow as played by Strathairn is a man of integrity, passionate and yet restrained, saying what needs to be said and nothing more, and saying it with focus but not force. The program is both contained and constrained, constrained by its advertisers and its political scope and contained simply by its format.

Ultimately, this containment also applies to the film itself, and is both the film's greatest artistic asset and what makes it a limited work. Good Night, and Good Luck tells one story in a lovely, disciplined, artistically honest fashion, but we see nothing beyond the scope of Murrow's immediate world. We see nothing of the repercussions of his actions beyond the immediate--which choice is presumably intended to allow us, as an audience, to reflect on what those repercussions might be for us. I honor that choice, but perhaps the limitations come from not seeing the world outside the television studio at all. We have no idea how it might have really changed the world beyond television even in that moment, have no sense even of who Murrow's viewers are. A choice that feels deliberate and considered, and probably benefits the movie as much as it harms it.

I imagine that this film will win few, if any, Oscars, perhaps because of this containment, and given that I wish to honor it artistically in this essay. It is a well-made, well-thought-out, well-acted, well-executed film. It inspires no passion because it exhibits none, even though it was clearly made out of a passionate driving impulse, but it has tremendous artistic integrity and tremendous artistic talents.


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