Parisians like their movies in their original presentation. Although you can find dubbed versions of current releases in some theaters, most showplaces run their films in whats called version originale. You hear the original language and, of course, there are French subtitles. This is a vastly different approach from how Italians watch motion pictures. Virtually every film is dubbed into Italian. Last month, we were also in Rome, and we did walk by a repertory cinema near our hotel in the northsides Prati district, which was showing Michelangelo Antonionis Zabriskie Point and Blowup in the original English. But by-and-large, the Italians do not want to be bothered reading subtitles. Its interesting to note that most Italians have little idea what American movie stars really sound like.
The French devotion to movies is remarkable. After all, its a nation that became unglued when students and filmmakers rioted in the Spring of 1968 when the then-director of the Cinematheque Francaise a government organization - was fired. Henri Langlois was an icon to movie lovers throughout the world, not just in France. His dismissal lead to street demonstrations that brought the government to its knees.
The French have a vast respect for movies as both an art form and a vehicle for expression that is astonishing to consider. Most contemporary American filmmakers are in it for the money. Of course, the fact that week-in and week-out this year, an awful lot of new studio releases are bombing at the box office, shouldnt be lost on the guardians of American moviedom. Is change coming? Change for the good? You really do need a weatherman to know which way the winds blowing.
One American filmmaker who actually seems to care about movies as art and as a vehicle for expression is George Clooney. The son of television anchorman Nick (who briefly worked at Buffalos WGRZ in the early 1990s), Clooney is an interesting guy. He may have a reputation real or imagined as a ladys man, or a sort of latter-day combo of Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, but the guy is clearly spending a lot of his time wanting to take movies in a different direction, a direction in which they havent been since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Clooney directed the fascinating Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (the 2002 release about game show veteran Chuck Barris), and he has produced or co-produced some other very interesting features. I interviewed Clooney one-on-one when he was promoting his acting gig in Quentin Tarantinos From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and found the actor to be smart, engaging, and eager to take his career down a different path. That path would be producing and directing.
The latest result of Clooneys desire to make meaningful movies films that aim high in the intelligence AND entertainment department is Good Night, And Good Luck. In a sentence, the movie is one of the best works of this or any other year.
As director, Clooney has chosen to have his movie shot in stunning black and white. Give credit to Robert Elswits cinematography; there hasnt been this glorious a black and white canvas since Woody Allens Manhattan. The screenplay is by Clooney and George Heslov and it perfectly captures the 1950s adventure that was the beginning of television. But Clooney and his acting team and production crew arent only interested in celebrating the infancy of broadcast TV. They are also vitally interested in the power of television to persuade. The subject matter of Good Night, And Good Luck is Edward R. Murrow, an intelligent and well-respected journalist who also brought movie stars into peoples homes with his Person-To-Person show. Murrow believed strongly in the role television had to play in the political lives of the American public. Ever-present cigarette hanging between his fingers, Murrow and his colleagues at CBS dared to cross swords with demagogic United States Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. He was a man who believed communists were front-loaded in the U.S. State Department, homosexuals were destroying the U.S. military from within, and anyone who disagreed with him was his enemy and that his enemies were out to destroy him.
The movie is a meticulous reconstruction of a time and an era that Clooney vividly brings to life. Cigarette smoke wafts through the hallways, Cold War paranoia is everywhere, and CBS journalists (most of them print and radio veterans) were exploring how to challenge McCarthy without upsetting the capitalist apple cart. Then and now, TV is nothing if not a business enterprise.
Murrow was a legendary newsman in the 1940s and 1950s who believed in a standard of journalistic integrity and ethics that makes many of todays reporters, columnists, and commentators seem like attendees at a Fellini-esque buffet. He would sign-off his programs with the expression good night, and good luck. The movie is a lightning-fast 93-minute tribute to passion, responsibility, and honesty. Its also whiplash smart no dumbing-down of the material here. The film details Murrows on-air battle a genuine televised war with McCarthy. It was a war of words and images that is both enlightening and cautionary. Enlightening because it tells us that the more things change in politics, the more they stay the same. And cautionary because it clearly shows that knowing how to play to the camera is just as important as what you are saying. Style and substance, form and function indeed.
The always superb David Strathairn plays Murrow with class, eloquence, and a deliciously jaundiced wit. Clooney has decided to let McCarthy speak for himself; thus, the Senator is on-screen in actual archival footage of his public appearances and rowdy hearings. This mix of cinema re-creation and documentary reality is a blend that works well. Clooney plays Murrows TV producer and partner, Fred Friendly, a man for whom telling the truth is a given.
Its readily apparent that Clooney has long contemplated the mysteries, vagaries, and potential of television. Murrow, as seen by the filmmakers and acted by Strathairn, is a man of no illusions and potent ideals. He even offers McCarthy airtime knowing full well that the Senator will use it to attack CBS and smear him and his journalist colleagues. Murrow understands that McCarthys anger will lead to government officials pressuring CBS boss, William Paley, nicely played by Frank Langella. In fact, Murrow seems to understand so well the quicksand that will be his fight against McCarthy that its almost as if hes secretly found the chemical key to surviving it. Fearless doesnt begin to describe his actions. Through it all, you really understand how and why Murrow believed McCarthy was a danger to the American way of life and needed to be stopped. He also saw the Senator as a hypocrite and bully, and all you really ever need is one person with guts to stand up to any bully. Exposing what should be obvious to everyone really does take courage.
After watching the movie, most audience members will make comparisons to contemporary politics and politicians. A government out of control is a government that needs to be removed from office. But Good Night, And Good Luck isnt preachy by any stretch of the imagination. Its a straightforward exploration of the facts of a dark period in the life of the country. The film also offers keen insights into the news gathering and reporting business. The well-acted, flawlessly directed movie works as both entertainment and an intelligent rendering of history. To borrow from the title of another Murrow broadcast see it now. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie editor
Theres something glorious about being in a city in which movies are revered. That city is Paris, where more than 300 movie theaters celebrate whats new and, more importantly, whats old on the screen. The vaunted Cinematheque Francaise shows its films in a Frank Gehry-designed building, and a wonderful store, Cine-Images, is devoted only to movie posters.