Filler or art?
June 30, 2006 1:44 AM   Subscribe

Armchair Movie CriticFilter: I want to ask everyone's opinion about George Clooney's "Good night, and good luck". Specifically about the subplot with Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson (possible spoilers).

I enjoyed the movie very much, but I'm wondering what was the significance of this plotline? That CBS didn't allow employees to be married seems to have nothing to do with the McCarthy hearings, and there was never much explanation or resolution...or am I missing something? It seems just like filler in an otherwise great film.
posted by zardoz to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The film industry uses a plot element known as "second sell". The first "sell" of the film (in this case) was the politics of the era. For less hardline viewers, a second source of conflict is used to mainatin interest. I hope that's clear enough.
posted by jne1813 at 2:05 AM on June 30, 2006

I thought it added depth to the story, and served to emphasise the theme of keeping your self - your romantic life, your politics - hidden.
posted by handee at 2:29 AM on June 30, 2006

What handee said. Also, the fact that their colleagues turned a respectful blind eye to that private matter, even though it contravened official policy (from memory, at least they did until they were forced to confront it...I forget why, or what the result was). This willingness to tolerate a breach of office policy served as a thematic counterpoint to the McCarthyist approach of relentlessly probing into the personal sphere (even insinuating communist sympathies where they were non-existent, tenuous or where they belonged to the past).
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:24 AM on June 30, 2006

I thought it helped to demonstrate how far we've come since then in a social sense, and how what was going on predated the notion of the state having no place in the bedrooms of the nation. It also helped increase the sense of over the shoulder paranoia that a lot of people were feeling back then.
posted by furtive at 4:05 AM on June 30, 2006

For a little other historical perspective and to give the powers that were at the time a little break, be advised that these policies were a throwback to the depression when it was considered wrong for a single family to have two wage earners. Indeed, some state governments outlawed both husband and wife from being on government payrolls. Remember too that it was by no means certain that the good times would role after WWII. Respected econimists warned about a return to the depression. And so the policy continued.

Off point, but worth remembering. Carry on.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:28 AM on June 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Wershba's (who Clarkson and Downey played) were also key advisors on the film. Perhaps that had something to do with the prominence of their story.
posted by kimdog at 6:07 AM on June 30, 2006

Yeah, kimdog has it. Or at least, that was my assumption when seeing the film. Partly, they needed a girl, but mostly it's because the real life Wershbas were important consultants on the flick.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:01 AM on June 30, 2006

The Wershba story rebuts the slogan "If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about."

They were not breaking the law, and certainly they were not conspiring against the U. S. government. But if they had been called before HUAC, they could have been forced to testify they were married, resulting in the loss of their jobs and (perhaps) ruined careers for both.
posted by La Cieca at 7:04 AM on June 30, 2006

What jne1813 and kimdog said. It was completely extraneous to the movie, and just one of the factors that made the movie so tedious and disappointing to me. (About the fifth time they showed cigarette smoke curling languorously upwards to the accompaniment of soulful music, I was ready to scream: "Yes, I get it, it's The Fifties! Now do something!")
posted by languagehat at 7:07 AM on June 30, 2006

The secondary plot line in this movie was actually cigarette smoking. Languagehat pretty much nailed it above.
posted by freq at 7:33 AM on June 30, 2006

I was a bit puzzled by the Weshba subplot too -- kept waiting for it to become relevant to the main McCarthy v. Murrow conflict, but it never did.

Initially I added this loose end to the reasons I was disappointed and underwhelmed by the film, but upon reflection I think it actually made the movie more interesting than it otherwise would have been -- the fact that threads and events didn't necessarily connect or come together in the end, wrapped in a tidy bow.
posted by hazelshade at 7:40 AM on June 30, 2006

Am I the only one who thought this movie was crappy? I don't want to bother recreating the whole rant, but I went on for a good 10 minutes outside the theater explaining to a friend who thought it "wasn't ... awful" why I wanted those 2 hours of my life back. Later, we noticed that people outside were queueing up for tickets. I felt kind of bad, but also like I did them a favor.

My guess about the romantic subplot was that it was actually a hastily created counter to the realization that the human thing was otherwise basically absent from the film. McCarthy is an a-motivational demon -- not even evil, every bit as primally driven as Jaws. Morrow, for his part, is a scion of journalistic ethics, more "Integrity" in a Medieval morality play than human being. There is no real hesitation, no doubt about what he ought to do. These aren't people on the screen, these are ideals or forces. Ideals and forces that just happen to smoke. So, what the Wershbas give us -- just like the underdeveloped tragically-troubled-anchor story, by the way -- is the trappings of humanity.

In this way, hopefully we don't notice that the conflict isn't drama. It's a clumsy leaden sermon.
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:32 AM on June 30, 2006

The Wershba plotline was much more interestingly and objectively handled than the main one.

The point of the plotline seemed to be that digging into/placing strictures on people's personal lives--their loves, in this case, but perhaps also their beliefs--which have nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs is destructive. I agree with La Cieca.

If anything, the Wershba story is the most human part of the film. I don't see how it's "filler." It at least gets at the specific impact of the Fifties environment these people worked and lived in (if not McCarthyism specifically), rather than providing us with a trite, good-versus-evil faceoff that communicates absolutely nothing new.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:33 AM on June 30, 2006

.kobayashi. beat me to it.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:34 AM on June 30, 2006

i was bothered by the married co-worker subplot as well. it had no place in the movie - it didn't further the main plot or really cause me to be more interested in the movie. on the other hand i liked the smoking because it "grounded" me into the time frame and really gave the film a sense of character.
posted by sporky at 9:44 AM on June 30, 2006


This is a fundamental problem with drama based upon fact -- reality tends to be messy and unselective, whereas art is driven by selectivity of focus.

Had the screenwriters treated the source material more freely, they might have found a way to make the Wershba subplot more organically related to the main story, or they might simply have omitted the Wershbas from the action. Similarly (though less on-topic), the screenplay might have set up a more effective face-to-face confrontation between Murrow and McCarthy.

But, like I said, that's the problem with trying to present fact as drama; you're boxed in my all those pesky documented facts. (This is particularly tricky when the characters depicted are still alive.)
posted by La Cieca at 11:05 AM on June 30, 2006

Nonsense. While reality is messy and unselective, it's a screenwriter's job to be selective -- to pare out the crap; to heighten the dramatic tension. One needn't fundamentally change the historical record to do so. But to do so well, you'd need to be less ham-handed than the people behind Good Night, and Good Luck.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:15 AM on June 30, 2006

I enjoyed the film and took the subplot, as many here have, as a second example of "policy" (in this case, corporate) invading the lives of people and forcing them to be secretive about what ought to be their own business. That resonates with the main plot--remember that it's not a crime in the US to be a member of the communist party. Nor is it any of the government's business if you are.

In defence of the subplot, I'd say corporate invasion of personal affairs (in particular, marriage--that most personal of personal affairs) is far more familiar and probably more obviously unjust than governmental investigation of personal political views. The former is something members of the audience are more likely to be familiar with, on some level, than the latter.
posted by wheat at 12:14 PM on June 30, 2006

I saw what they were going for (the intrusion aspect above), but I thought it was carried out badly and felt tacked on to the plot.

As a side note, casting directors, if you throw in famous people without developing their characters, every time they come on screen, the audience thinks, "Hey, she's from Will & Grace" and it ruins the movie going experience.

I left the film wishing there was a really good documentary about the story instead of what I just paid $10 to see.
posted by Gucky at 12:22 PM on June 30, 2006

When I watched with my friends the first thing we said at the end was, "What the hell was with that marriage sub-plot?" Terribly executed, should have been left on the cutting room floor. Syriana also had a couple bad cuts, as seen from the deleted scenes: Bob explains to his wife that Mussawi was went to Rutgers and was a CIA turned Iranian spy. If the original cut did give that information out it did so poorly, and the deleted scene helped tie the story line together (though it did introduce the character of Bob's wife late in the film, I don't think she needed to be established in an earlier scene and the addition of the deleted scene would have stood on its own). George Clooney needs to perhaps get some assistance in this respect.
posted by geoff. at 1:15 PM on June 30, 2006

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