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It’s not exactly morning in America. The president and his party are in a tailspin, as is the country’s standing worldwide. “Iraq” is Arabic for “quagmire,” and “Katrina” is Cajun for “clueless.” Oh, and the price of gasoline is up. But anyone who wants to feel better about this country can just go see one of this week’s cinematic strikes at the red, white, and blue, Good Night, and Good Luck. or Dear Wendy. Both are so uncompelling that they barely add a scratch to the United States’ already-shredded reputation.
An earnest, low-key period piece about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 on-air showdown with commie-obsessed Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck. may seem pointlessly obscure to younger viewers. (Reportedly, some preview-audience members thought the long-dead McCarthy, who plays himself in the film through the miracle of kinescopes, was “overacting.”) Co-writer, director, and supporting actor George Clooney’s black-and-white drama is in part a history lesson, but from the opening sequence it’s clear that the movie is primarily an allegory. The story is framed by a 1958 salute to the morose Murrow (David Strathairn), at which the esteemed journalist accuses television of “decadence,” a judgment that just might still apply to the medium that now brings us Jerry Springer, the Fox News Channel, and Pimp My Ride.
Clearly, Murrow had no idea what was coming, but the film—titled after the host’s signature sign-off line—is a little dishonest about what had already happened. CBS News and most of the rest of the mainstream media either explicitly supported McCarthy or stayed out of his way throughout the early ’50s. Murrow’s principled stand against him came only as the Red-fighting senator was beginning to lose both his clout and his grip. And though Murrow may have been a valiant crusader at heart, he—like all journalists who aren’t self-published—was subject to many forms of institutional second-guessing, as well as self-censorship.
Made for less than $8 million and overextended at 93 minutes, Good Night, and Good Luck. is a chamber piece set mostly in CBS’s studios, with occasional (and unnecessary) side trips to a jazz club. Clooney, whose father was a local-news anchor, pays careful attention to period details (although a few are off) and ambience, wreathing his characters in cigarette smoke and inserting Paleolithic TV commercials. The essential conflict is three-way, with Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (played by the ever-twinkly director) battling McCarthy over his tactics but also having to jointly defend every anti-McCarthy remark on the Murrow-hosted See It Now to wary CBS President William Paley (Frank Langella). Meanwhile, one of Murrow’s colleagues (Ray Wise) begs for help in protecting himself from a scandal-sheet columnist, and two others (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) try to conceal their marriage, which is prohibited by CBS policy.
There are numerous alcohol-fueled asides, some chummy jokes, and a few giggles at the expense of the closeted Liberace, a guest on Murrow’s celebrity-chat program, Person to Person. Mostly, though, the actors behave as if they’re in a film noir, grim and tight-lipped as they consider how to challenge that shadowy mob boss, McCarthy. Because he’s only a ghostly taking head and can never appear in person with the actors, the senator comes across like one of those clandestine masterminds in an early Fritz Lang crime or spy thriller. The close quarters, deliberate pacing, and attention to process also suggest various art films about making art films, such as Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore. As a director, Clooney is the student of business partner Steven Soderbergh, and here he’s channeling the Soderbergh who emulated F.W. Murnau (Kafka) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris). The result probably won’t grab viewers who grew up grooving to quick cuts and tuning out American history.
For those who know the names Murrow and McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck. may have more appeal. Still, in the wake of phony WMDs and Abu Ghraib torture, Clooney’s agenda is more interesting than his movie. Allegories should work as stories first, and this one is an unsatisfying combination of exposé, buddy picture, and anti-narrative procedural. Given that the film extols the valor of Edward R. Murrow, maybe its makers should have done the brave thing and directly challenged Dubya, Karl Rove, and those American TV-news operations—namely, all of them—who presented the invasion of Iraq as a sort of Olympic death match in which the U.S. team was heavily favored. Not exactly a successor to such McCarthy-era allegories as The Crucible, Good Night, and Good Luck. is competent, unsurprising, and all too distant from Clooney’s actual concerns.
Set in a decaying mining town in what Lars von Trier imagines to be the U.S.A., Dear Wendy is the Danish provocateur’s latest attempt to assassinate the American character—this time with a pearl-handled, purse-sized revolver. Whereas his upcoming Manderlay, the sequel to Dogville, posits a 1930s burg where slavery still exists, this one’s about another of our country’s infamies: guns. Americans just love ’em, explains von Trier’s script, which was directed by longtime Dogma co-conspirator Thomas Vinterberg. This film doesn’t qualify for a Dogma certificate, because it relies on two forbidden ingredients, firearms and pre-recorded music. As small-town adolescent Dick (Jamie Bell) forms an oddball gun club, his actions are synced to the Zombies’ greatest hits.
As in Billy Elliot, Bell plays a miner’s son who’s a bit too arty to flourish in the pits. With no dance teacher in the archetypal American mining town of Estherslope, Dick must take a job in a supermarket, where co-worker Stevie (Mark Webber) informs him that the bantam handgun he bought and thought was a toy is the real thing. Stevie knows guns, but Dick has the larger vision: They will start a costume-wearing gang called the Dandies, and will become crack shots but never fire their guns at anything but targets. The guys establish a clubhouse in an abandoned section of the mine complex and recruit the town’s other “losers” to join. Part of the ritual is naming the pieces: Dick’s “girl’s gun” is Wendy, Stevie has Bad Steel, and Susan (Alison Pill) has a pair she calls Lee and Grant. (Why does she get two? To match her breasts, of course—the Dandies’ relationship to their sidearms is sexualized in ways that even a Freudian might find crude.)
The trouble starts when kindly local cop Krugsby (Bill Pullman) asks Dick to serve as an unofficial parole officer to Sebastian (Danso Gordon), an actual gun-crime perp and the grandson of Dick’s family’s former housekeeper, Clarabelle (Novella Nelson). (With an attention to U.S. stereotypes worthy of Bill Bennett, Dear Wendy’s auteurs make Sebastian African-American.) Tension quickly develops between Dick and Sebastian, but they agree to work together when Clarabelle—perhaps paranoid, but maybe simply aware of just what kind of country von Trier has invented for her—announces that she’s afraid to leave her apartment. Eagerly undertaking a paramilitary exercise, the Dandies make plans to guard her on a short excursion. But then someone actually pulls the trigger, and the pacifist gun fetishists find themselves in the midst of a shooting war.
“Well, no one told me about her,” sing the Zombies, but that complaint doesn’t apply to what’s on the screen. As if Dear Wendy’s formulation—guns + sublimated teen lust = America—weren’t obvious enough, Dick pens all of his thoughts in a letter to his beloved Wendy, words that dog the action in voice-over. By the time the Dandies erupt into violence, the viewer should be several steps ahead of the film’s critique. And those who are especially familiar with von Trier’s anti-Americanism, which dates back at least as far as 1991’s Zentropa, could probably imagine the tale’s essential elements without watching it at all.
That might be fine with Vinterberg and von Trier, who assault verisimilitude as enthusiastically as they do the U.S.A. Although this film was shot on 3-D sets (in Denmark and Germany), it recalls Dogville’s almost-bare soundstage with its use of the map of Estherslope with which the Dandies plan their abortive maneuver. Like every stop von Trier (a confirmed nontraveler) makes on his imaginary tour of the America he’s never visited, Estherslope is a highly ironic blend of motifs from theater, cinema, and liberal-European-newspaper op-eds. If Dear Wendy is overstated, artificial, and alienating, that’s because the movie is just as determined to undermine the Hollywood dream factory as it is to perforate the American dream.CP