Good Night and Good Luck is a dramatic recreation of real life events in the early 1950’s between television journalist Edward R. Morrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Lovingly shot in black and white, the film explores the on-air showdown between Morrow and McCarthy that began the end of the “McCarthy era.” The movie’s pedigree, production qualities, and performances are impeccable. Its critical acclaim and box office prowess (a budget of $7M and box office grosses of $31.5M in five months not counting DVD sales) are obvious. There’s only one thing that it seems to lack—a grand argument story. So why is it so popular?
SPOILERS AHEAD…Sort of.
I’m not going to talk too much about Good Night and Good Luck’s story, so there’s not much I can spoil. Once I cover the little story stuff of interest, I want to suggest why this film is popular IN SPITE of the fact it isn’t a grand argument story. That should be fun!
About the Story—Good Night and Good Luck is all about the Overall Story throughline. Period. Though there are many candidates for Main Character, the filmmakers seem to have intentionally kept the audience at arm’s length from identifying with any of them on a personal level. Edward R. Morrow and Fred Friendly are the likeliest candidates for Main Character and Influence Character but we never get inside their heads. We seem to watch them from the outside, never the inside. For a moment, the married couple—Joe and Shirley Wershba—seems like secondary MC and IC candidates but it never happens. Even the relationships in the story that could be developed into a Relationship Story throughline never take on the passion the perspective needs to breathe. Sure, there’s passion but it is explored as subject matter, not as a perspective.
Since all of the characters are part of the Overall Story, none of them change. They are all stalwart participants in the “plot,” steadfastly performing their story functions as one might expect of Objective characters. No one changes in the story. No one grows. But somehow Good Night and Good Luck works. How?
Dramatica breaks the story process into four stages. The one closest to the author is called Storyforming. This is where an author determines the underlying abstract message (or argument) he wants to tell. The next stage is called Storyencoding. This is where the author illustrates the abstract concepts with specific words and images (or whatever form his medium takes). The third stage is called Storyweaving. This is where the author controls the delivery of the Storyencoding. What does the audience see first, then next, and so on until the work reaches the end? The last stage is Story Reception. This is where the audience “decodes” the story and interprets the results, hopefully arriving at a sense of the author’s intent.
The four throughlines exist as part of the storyform created by the author. I’ve already established that I think Good Night and Good Luck’s storyform is incomplete. My guess is that it is intentionally incomplete so as to appear as objective as possible.
I believe Good Night and Good Luck’s success has partly to do with the Storyencoding, but mostly to do with Story Reception. Here’s my reasoning:
The film is chock full of well-known and popular actors (George Clooney, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels). Loading the film with known talent is appealing to audiences.
However, I think it is the film’s subject matter and its similarity to current events that is the real draw and provides the real “bang.” Good Night and Good Luck is about the McCarthy era. It is about a time when personal civil liberties were trod on by the government. It’s about a time when evidence was unnecessary for conviction and innuendo could destroy a person’s career. It’s about a time when most people were concerned more for their own welfare than following their conscience and doing what they felt was right. It was a time when people began to seriously distrust the government based on the unfair treatment of fellow citizens and the government’s exploitation of the threat of terrorist attacks (the Cold War).
It’s about a time that is very much like now.
The film’s political message speaks to a concern relevant to current audiences. Some would say the fear mongering used by Joseph McCarthy parallels tactics used by the George W. Bush administration. The current administration’s secrecy, illegal wire-tappings, alleged corruption, intentional distribution of misinformation, imprisonment without trial or representation, and cronyism makes the political events of the early fifties relevant to today. PLUS, Good Night and Good Luck is a “David meets Goliath” story—always an American cultural favorite. It shows how a small group dedicated to the forces for honesty and integrity overcame great odds and brought down a corrupt government bureaucracy. (The film didn’t need to show McCarthy come tumbling down because most of the film’s intended audience (baby boomers and older) already knew how it ended.)
Who needs a grand argument story when you’re preaching to the choir? All you need to do is make it good-looking and keep it honest. The audience will fill in the rest.
CODA: Based on the fact that it does not have a complete storyform, I’m willing to guess that the film probably won’t have the same kind of "legs" once the current administration is gone (assuming, of course, that it is replaced by something other than a clone of itself). I’m also willing to guess that Good Night and Good Luck is not a film people will watch over and over. Until that time when the storytelling goes stale and its message is no longer current, however, my guess is Good Night and Good Luck will remain “on the air.”