Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Reviews

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By Leonard KladyIn Walk the Line, the cadences of Michael McCuskers’ editing are energized by a catalog that’s mournful, insistent and progressive. There’s poignancy in production designer David Bomba’s work that crystallizes in the evocation of a dream house trying just a bit too hard to impress and justify. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC, long a staple of the independent sector, at last has a showcase for his graceful and vivid imagery and a vehicle certain to receive attention for the potency of its drama.In Good Night, and Good Luck, the decision to film in black and white proves to be aesthetically pleasing, practical and, one suspects, economically adroit. Going monochrome allows for a more fluid opportunity to employ vintage kinescopes. Yet, there’s no great strain or effort to marry the singular grain of newsreel with the modern replications in the camerawork of Robert Elswit, ASC. There’s a smoky, almost dreamlike quality to the images that are a subtle reminder of the way television looked in the 1950s. The use of shadow further underscores the tacitly sinister elements outside the studio and provides great latitude for Jim Bissell’s production design and the costumes of Louise Frogley to indicate an era shrouded in memory.Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.—George SantayanaIt’s been oft noted that Americans are a people whose knowledge and interest in their own history approaches embarrassment. Filmmakers and critics have cited the absence of a great film about the Revolutionary War and pointed to such hallmarks as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind as less than adequate in providing a sense of the nation during the War Between the States in the 1860s.One can grasp the reticence on an audience to step into the dark for a two-hour history lesson and appreciate the guile and obfuscation of writers and directors searching for a means to inform the present via yarns viewed in a rear view mirror. Historically that’s been best articulated via a biographical film. The saga of Alvin York (the hero of Howard Hawk’s 1941 war film Sergeant York) provided a rallying cry for a then current war by embracing the exploits of hero from an earlier conflict, while Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X afforded a glimpse at racial tension by focusing on someone forcing the issue at a critical moment in time.Walk the Line and Good Night, and Good Luck are excellent examples of this process (as is the forthcoming Capote). The former film traverses about a decade and a half of singer Johnny Cash’s life while the latter zeroes in on a critical season in the career of newscaster Edward R. Murrow.On the surface, Walk the Line can be viewed as a highly entertaining, emotionally charged star bio that traces a career from its nascent moments through to the seminal event that defined or contextualized that personality. The opening scene of the film masterfully establishes the mood as Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) fixates on a buzz saw in a prison machine shop that serves as a makeshift green room while the ambient hard charging rhythms of his band warm up the crowd of Folsom Prison inmates. The music itself is a reminder of the singer-songwriter’s legacy while the machine tool and cutaways to a rambunctious and impatient crowd establish not simply a quality of danger but a symbiosis between the singer and the outlaws separated by a thin if inert blade.Without literally adopting the foot-stomping tempo of the Cash repertoire, the cadences of Michael McCuskers’ editing are energized by a catalog that’s mournful, insistent and progressive. The touchstones of the genre are visible. Growing up poor in Arkansas, the young Cash is informed by the tragic freak accident that results in his brother’s death. He cannot shake a sense of guilt for the death and it’s reinforced by a lifelong inability to please or even find validation from a taciturn father (Robert Patrick).The fiber that threads through the film concerns not having money, education or a great deal of exposure to a wider world. For most, the trinity provides a crippling imprisonment and Cash is nothing if not fortunate to transcend those shackles. The man in black has a considerably more difficult time ridding himself of the ghosts of his past. He does not find it in marriage, children, alcohol, drugs or fame and his validation emerges via a love story that begins with impossible odds and progresses into his manifest destiny.June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) emerged virtually from the womb as a music star, having been born into Nashville royalty and being thrust into the family business as a child. Her demons are considerably less tortuous: establishing a solo career and overcoming a personal feeling that lineage supplanted true talent. She is an obvious prize for a sharecropper’s son whose dreams of escape funnel through a radio where the teenage June exists in a distant, glamorous universe. Fortunately, tics aside, she is grounded in temporal truth and the hurdles to clear for Cash are personal demons and a marital union gone fallow.Walk the Line has a breathtaking assurance underlined by the efficacy of actors that have the talent and courage to use their own singing voices to interpret seminal performances. Visually it has an unfussy quality that edges into the garish. There’s poignancy in production designer David Bomba’s work that crystallizes in the evocation of a dream house trying just a bit too hard to impress and justify. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC, long a staple of the independent sector, at last has a showcase for his graceful and vivid imagery and a vehicle certain to receive attention for the potency of its drama.There’s a comparable simplicity about Good Night, and Good Luck, even if it requires a momentary adjustment to the contemporary novelty of seeing a film shot in black and white. Though framed around a testimonial to the newsman in 1959, the prime focus unfolds six years earlier at the apex of the Red Scare and the Communist witch-hunt ruthlessly exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy.Murrow (David Strathairn) has evolved into a paragon of television journalism, though today’s generation know him (if it all) from news clips in documentaries that provide little evidence of his authority or stature. In 1953, the chain-smoking, sallow-faced Murrow was the face of CBS News as a result of his work on the investigative See It Now and the interviews he did for Person to Person.“Good night, and good luck” was his signature sign-off. With the passage of years and in the context of those dangerous times it has taken on an ironic tinge. The catalyst for what is to evolve is an incident in which Lt. Milo Radulovich, a navy pilot, is dismissed from the service on rather shadowy circumstances that may or may not have stemmed from his father’s subscription to an Eastern European newspaper. Regardless, the military appears to be hiding behind the curtain of “national security” and Murrow, his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and the news team smell an injustice and an abuse of power that ought to be investigated.In its quiet way the film is a paean to journalism of the highest order and the peculiar risks that go along with it. The echoes of the past have an uncomfortable contemporary resonance, whether it involves the chilling menace of a confrontation between CBS reporter Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) and a Senatorial assistant or a meeting between Murrow and CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella) that hints of palpable external pressures from the government as well as program sponsors.The decision to film in black and white proves to be aesthetically pleasing, practical and, one suspects, economically adroit. Of all the real-life characters portrayed, none is more indelible than McCarthy, and going monochrome allows for a more fluid opportunity to employ vintage kinescopes of the real politician rather than casting an acto
r straining to replicate veracity. Yet, there’s no great strain or effort to marry the singular grain of newsreel with the modern replications in the camerawork of Robert Elswit, ASC. There’s a smoky, almost dreamlike quality to the images that are a subtle reminder of the way television looked in the 1950s. The use of shadow further underscores the tacitly sinister elements outside the studio and provides great latitude for Jim Bissell’s production design and the costumes of Louise Frogley to indicate an era shrouded in memory.Finally, the success of both films comes down to avoiding the pitfall of nostalgia. They refuse to glory in the bygone but address its lessons in a fashion that has not tarnished.

Written by Len Klady

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