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Viewer Guide: “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Chronic”

October 20, 2021 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 CLASSIC | GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

This week’s classic is Good Night, and Good Luck, the 2005 docudrama directed by George Clooney. 

Taking its title from the signature broadcast sign-off of pioneering journalist Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck opens at a 1958 TV & Radio news association dinner where Murrow gave his famous “wires and lights” speech about the unfulfilled potential of the television medium. Played by David Strathairn, Murrow is the event’s guest of honor, yet his speech sends a chill through the assembled industry leaders. Flashing back to 1953, the film dramatizes a pivotal moment in the conflict between the integrity of broadcast news and the commercial demands of network television with the story behind the most famous episode of Murrow’s CBS News series See It Now. Murrow and his co-producer Fred Friendly, played by George Clooney, dared to confront the bullying tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy’s “Red Scare” to rid the federal government of alleged communists. Murrow and his team of reporters find themselves increasingly challenged to stand up against McCarthy’s blatant political witch hunt, struggling to separate fact from fiction in an atmosphere ruled by fear and paranoia. 

Also featured are Jeff Daniels as CBS News director Sig Mickelson, Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as the secretly married couple Joseph and Shirley Wershba, Frank Langella as CBS CEO Bill Paley and Ray Wise as the ill-fated news anchor Don Hollenbeck. Jazz singer Dianne Reeves performs the atmospheric score of American songbook classics. 

Edward R. Murrow’s famous sign-off phrase “Good night, and good luck” originated with his World War II radio broadcasts from London during the city’s Nazi bombing raids. His 1958 speech at the Radio & TV News Directors Association dinner recreated at the opening of the film served to further estrange him from CBS CEO Bill Paley, leading to his eventual resignation from the network in 1961. Yet his career hardly ended there: before his untimely death from lung cancer in 1965, Murrow hosted the first broadcast of WNDT educational television in 1962—the station that later became WNET Channel 13. Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly later joined the faculty of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and served as a broadcast consultant for the Ford Foundation. Friendly also became a key figure in the formation of PBS in 1969. George Clooney’s interest in Murrow had family roots stemming from his father Nick Clooney’s career as a TV anchorman. But during the film’s preparation, Clooney was unable to secure production insurance for himself due to a back injury he suffered while filming Syriana, ultimately mortgaging his Los Angeles house and taking a salary of one dollar to proceed. He also had to fight to present the film in black and white, actually shooting it in color but then processing it in black and white—which everyone finally agreed was more appropriate for the film. Clooney’s faith in the material paid off: the international box office receipts for the film reached $54 million, and Good Night, and Good Luck would receive six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for David Strathairn. It also opened the New York Film Festival in 2005. 

REEL 13 INDIE | CHRONIC

Chronic (2015).

This week’s indie is Chronic, a 2015 drama directed by Michel Franco. 

Providing an unblinking look at a tough subject, Chronic stars Tim Roth as David, a home care nurse doing the difficult work of assisting seriously ill patients who are sometimes nearing the end of life. Helping the sick and disabled with the simple tasks that they are no longer capable of doing—or filling in for absent family members who have abdicated responsibility—David perseveres with a stoic dedication that’s compassionate and admirable…yet also mysterious, becoming close enough with some patients to attend their funerals, while avoiding any true personal connection. Gradually, David’s service almost begins to seem like a form of penance, especially as we learn more about his failed marriage, his semi-estranged adult daughter—and a son, whose memory leads David to confront one of the most difficult ethical issues in the medical profession. 

Mexican writer-director Michel Franco received his inspiration for Chronic from observing his grandmother’s interactions with her caregivers during her final decline. Tim Roth approached Franco about working together after seeing Franco’s acclaimed earlier film After Lucia at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. To prepare for his performance, Roth trained with professional nurses to determine how to approach his character, as well as how to convincingly portray the physically demanding work of hospice care. None of the actors were actually patients, although British actress Rachel Pickup undertook a dramatic weight loss to effectively play Sarah, the AIDS patient David is caring for at the start of the film. Michael Cristofer, who plays the senior stroke patient, is also a playwright and screenwriter; Cristofer’s 1977 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shadow Box had in fact dramatized the stories of three terminally ill patients. Chronic was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and was honored with the Festival’s Best Screenplay Award that year.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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