Film Posts Archive

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TV Journalism In Its Prime, Filmmaking Not So Much – Good Night, And Good Luck Review

I’d like to make this clarification right off the bat: as a historically accurate representation of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s quest to expose Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communism insanity, Good Night, And Good Luck is a fantastic movie. Life if the 1950s wasn’t easy–especially when you were someone known and seen by a very large part of the nation on a regular basis. Although I feel this aspect of the movie stands strong, I do believe that Good Night, And Good Luck is not as successful in the aspect of filmmaking.

In terms of story,  Good Night, And Good Luck focuses in one a small part of Murrow’s life–the time when he fought against the government (mainly Senator Joseph McCarthy) after hearing of the dismissal of Air Force Pilot Milo Radulovich. Senator McCarthy accused him of being a communist, which in turn led the Air Force and government to fire him without a fair trial or hearing. This gained the interest of Murrow and the rest of the CBS News team. In one of Murrow’s shows, See It Now, an air wave battle took place as both men traded blows on who was the real communist infiltrating our nation’s soil. In the end, Radulovich was reinstated and McCarthy defeated (in a sense, at least), but Murrow paid the price through his show being moved to a very bad time slot and the suppressing of his presence on the network.

Murrow and his friend and CBS co-worker, Fred Friendly.

Murrow and his friend and CBS co-worker, Fred Friendly.

 

As a film, there are very clear pros and cons. Regardless of what I have to say here, the film was nominated for six oscars and won 40 other miscellaneous awards when released in 2005, so it must have done something right. The first real noticable thing about it is that is’s presented in full black and white. This serves the story well considering it’s representing a time when television was on the rise and the world could really only see it in black and white. The world had color, but print and television journalism was colorless.

The other main thing the film does is constantly use real footage from the original Murrow broadcasts, television commercials, McCarthy announcements and trials/hearings of the time. This, I believe, has the opposite effect on the film in some cases. While the audience is trying to connect with the vast amount of characters that are being presented to them (another problem with the film–the fact that there’s so many characters and no real time given to form emotional connections with each and every one), they’re constantly given full-length original television clips to watch. Although this helps tell the story because, well, it IS the story, I didn’t like how frequently these clips were shown. If the film had focused only on the actors it was using to portray the real-life characters, audiences would have been able to connect to them more.

Another issue putting characters back to back with the real people brings about is that audiences will tend to start to look for similarities and differences among actors and who is supposed to be playing who. Now for the most part, this is a good thing–historical films should encourage viewers to focus on the real people behind the stories and compare them with the actors portraying them in the film, but since it happens so frequently here, I feel that it has an opposite effect. I found myself focusing more on the production design of the sets and the makeup and accuracy of the actors and their historically-accurate counterparts more than I did any of the stories presented throughout the film.

Besides focusing on the technical aspects of the film rather than focusing on its story and the messages and meanings behind the real-life events it was recounting, I also had a hard time waiting for the main conflicts to arise. When you get right down to it, this film is about a very really and potentially life-threatening battle between Murrow and McCarthy. There were other prominent sub-plots revolving around the extent of government and network censorship as well as dealing with the stress and emotionally-tasking nature of broadcast journalism during a time when there were very few faces traveling across the airwaves, but none of them were as focused on. Going back to what I was commenting on before, the large amount of characters played by prominent, well-known actors in this film didn’t help me to get inside the heads of the characters at all.

One of Murrow's trusted and faithful cohorts in the CBS News network, Don Hollenbeck.

One of Murrow’s trusted and faithful cohorts in the CBS News network, Don Hollenbeck.

 

This argument is especially clear in the sub-plot regarding one of Murrow’s fellow CBS newscasters, Don Hollenbeck. Without giving any major plot points away, Hollenbeck has a very hard time dealing with the aggressive comments and criticisms printed in the newspapers and recounted by other television reporters. This is an age old issue (being open to criticism, but drawing a fine line between what’s constructive and what’s insulting), something that truly began in Hollenbeck’s era, but is much more prominent today. In The Insider, a film that investigates choices made during on of the United States largest cases regarding tobacco companies and investigative journalism’s role in the assault on those companies, television newscasters have to constantly deal with whatever is said about them by whomever–whether or not it’s true.

A character like Lowell Bergman (the main protagonist of The Insider) has a full film almost exclusively to himself to investigate how he feels about what people around him do and say, and the audience forms a strong connection with him over the two hour movie. In Hollenbeck’s case, the story feels very rushed, and it’s not as clear why he feels so strongly about the criticisms thrown against him. Again, it’s important to understand that in the 1950s, any hint of opressive verbal violence or slander could lead someone to worry for countless hours that they would be marked as a communist, but Good Night, And Good Luck never really helps the audience to form that connection.

Just as stated in the beginning of this post, I feel that Good Night, And Good Luck has some serious pros as well as some serious cons. The production value and A-List actors who worked on this project add a lot of realism, believability and integrity to the recreation of one of the nation’s turning points (at least for the fields of television broadcasting and investigative journalism). At the same time, the amount of information and characters mixed with the lack of clarity for certain motives as well as the constant use of original source material makes the film a little hard to sit through. I have a strong feeling that with the same artistic and storytelling formula and less characters, this movie could work extremely well as a long short (around 50 minutes long or so). I give it a 3/5 rating.

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Ordinary People In Extraordinary Situations – The Insider Review

Imagine a well-written, fully-arced show like The Newsroom (the parts that focus on the conflict between legitimate investigative journalism and station bureaucracy, at least) with a focus placed on investigative journalism in corporate America, and you’ve got The Insider.

Released in 1999, The Insider “tells the true story of a man who decided to tell the world what the seven major tobacco companies knew (and concealed) about the dangers of their product.” (Rotten Tomatoes) The film was nominated for seven Oscars ranging from Best Director to Best Editing, and went on to win not only many more awards, but the praise of film critics from across the nation.

 

At the most basic level, the film’s story revolves around Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), a research scientist at Brown and Williamson who was fired in March 1993 due to the fact that he ‘did his job too well.’ (Anatomy Of A Decision Timeline) To retaliate against the tobacco industry and fight for what he believed was right in the terms of American public health, Wigand decided to blow the whistle with the help of Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino), a producer of CBS’ news show 60 Minutes. As threats against his family were made by Brown and Williamson (the film states that in the real life story, it was never discovered who sparked the harassment and mafe the threats), Wigand hoped that the threats would stop and he would gain safety, approval and support in the court of public appeal by whistle blowing.

Unfortunately for Wigand, things didn’t go as planned. As he pursued exposing companies like Brown and Williamson, the threats only became more serious, his wife left him due to the stress and constant fear of being “silenced,” and reporters began to dig further and further into his past. All of these things on top of one another created a very intense, dark and stressful situation for Wigand, and the feelings his character was experiencing spilled off onto the audience. Through the constant use of high-pitched musical scores, dark shots with heavy shadow compositions and close-ups on Wigand and Bergman’s faces, The Insider masterfully conveys the feeling of what it’s like to be an insider–someone with information that everyone wants to know, even though they don’t know that they want it.

Shot composition is one of the main things that stood out to me during the more macabre scenes like this one.

Shot composition is one of the main things that stood out to me during the more macabre scenes in the film, ones like this one (where Wigand calls Bergman in a fit of paranoia and fear).

 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the film also conveys what it’s like to be an investigative journalist in the midst of a real, savage, sometimes unfair world. The film’s opening scene is where this side of the storytelling really shines: the audience gets to experience a military humvee ride in the desert through the eyes of a prisoner with a cloth bag over his/her head. It’s revealed that Bergman is the man under the bag, and he’s being transported to the location of an terrorist/sheik who may or may not agree to do an interview with Mike Wallace (the main face behind 60 Minutes, a reporter who has worked on the show for over 50 years). After ironically telling the sheik that the interview would help to give him a face while his face as covered, Bergman is told that the interview will happen in two days.

After the interview with Wallace takes place in a following scene, the main story (involving Wigand and the big tobacco companies) really begins. After such a shift in story, I was really left wondering why such a scene would be placed right at the beginning of the movie. At that point, I though that the film was going to be more about terrorism and negotiations with Islamic fundamentalists than nicotine and corporate greed. So this clear clash between stories and worlds really draws attention to itself.

As I researched what other critics and reviewers had to say about this part of the film, the words of Andy Markowitz, a film critic for the Baltimore City Paper, stood out: “The opening scenes of The Insider are all about how brave, resourceful, and idealistic Lowell Bergman is.” Markowitz sees the entire film as a commentary on the status of investigative reporters in the context of the world of The Insider. I immediately found myself agree with him because as I worked my way further and further into the film’s stories, the lives of the characters and the desires of each and every party, I also drew the conclusion that this film is meant to focus more on the journalism aspect rather than the big business, tobacco aspect.

Bergman's job of reporting the news and uncovering the truth constantly clashed with his desire to keep Wigand and his family alive and safe.

Bergman’s job of reporting the news and uncovering the truth constantly clashed with his desire to keep Wigand and his family alive and safe.

 

Even after the opening scene where Bergman and Wallace drive right into the heart of evil and danger by interviewing terrorists on their soil, many scenes further their “no-bullcrap, we’re here to do our job and nothing less” policies. When Wigand begins to think that informing the public about what’s really going on behind their backs might not actually win them over or make them care, he questions Bergman’s loyalty. Bergman, in a very assertive manner, tells Wigand that he’s “been out in the world, giving [his] word and backing it up with action.”

Even Wallace questions whose side Bergman is on later in the film, which leads to the supressing of Wigand’s interview and the tobacco story by CBS News. In real life, Wallace and Don Hewitt (the executive producer of the show) sided with CBS News on the choice not to air the original Wigand interview due to potential legal issues/lawsuits that Brown and Williamson might have raised against them. In an interview with the real Lowell Bergman on PBS’ Frontline, it was addressed that Wallace and Hewitt both “called the film an inaccurate record of events and an unfair characterization of their respective positions on the decision not to air the Wigand interview.” (A Talk With Lowell Bergman) Because of statements like this coming from the real life people, it’s hard to tell which opinions and beliefs were real and which were dramatized for effect in The Insider.

Regardless of the true personal beliefs of each person involved in the decision, the interview was only aired after the news of CBS declaring not to air Wigand’s interview was leaked to The New York Times. The fact that it had to come to the court of public opinion for CBS to allow the interview to be aired is ironic to say the least. The people that fought so hard to provide information to the public so they could in turn fight against an organization who was denying that information to them in the first place were chained back by another organization denying the public that information. As Bergman said in the film, “the more truth [Wigand] tells, the worse it gets.”

Looking back at this film after having researched and analyzed it, I can understand why it was so highly praised and meant so much for investigative journalism. It accurately depicts the vigorous, powerful and moving hunt for the truth that true journalists must go through constantly, especially when it comes to stories that could fundamentally change the way some of the nation’s largest industries work.

Stepping even further back and viewing the film for Markowitz’s point of view, that it’s an exploration of the bravery, resourcefulness and idealism of investigative journalists in the rapidly expanding (approaching, at the time of the film’s release) 21st century, The Insider stands out as a film that inspects human nature in one of the greatest legal cases in our country’s history. It tries to analyze why some people believe what they do, how they change over time, how others betray them and for what reasons, and why journalism is such a necessary part of this modern society we all live in. The film takes occasional liberties in modifying the story and creating a few fictional emotional responses and decisions, but it explores each and every character, their motives, their fears, their idiosyncrasies, their level of power and their place in society masterfully.

When “ordinary people are under extraordinary pressure,” it’s never clear what’s going to happen next. I give The Insider a 10/10.

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References:

Rotten Tomatoes, Film Review Aggregator

Anatomy Of A Decision Timeline, PBS Frontline

Baltimore City Paper The Insider Review, Andy Markowitz

 A Talk With Lowell Bergman, PBS Frontline

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“Discrimination Down to a Science” – Gattaca Review

In our Spring 2013 Mass Media class, we all watched the film Gattaca after taking our first exam. We were asked not to do any research about the film, but I will admit that the only thing I ‘Googled’ about it was its release date. The reason for that is because this film reminded me tremendously of other recent science fiction films that involve apocalyptic futures like Surrogates, i, Robot, Equilibrium and The Matrix. However, it turns out that Gattaca release in 1997, years before all of these other films.

Regardless of release date, the story of films like the ones mentioned above revolves around a future where some new type of being has been introduced into the world, and those beings are giving normal humans a serious run for their money. Whether it be the robots, machines or genetically superior bio-organisms, these beings pose one of two serious threats to average human beings: extinction or slavery.

Gattaca is no exception to this sic-fi formula. The film is set in a future where discrimination has been down packed to a science–quite literally. In this future, science has progressed extremely rapidly, bounding past problems like genetic cloning, disease control, etc. There have also been numerous technological progressions as well, such as human transportation/space flight to all of the planets in our galaxy and immediate identification through blood, urine, saliva and visual fluid scans. Unfortunately, with these advancements came new ways to hate people–meaning genetic racism (or “genilism,” as the film calls it) and new forms of segregation.

All of these things combined (technological, scientific and social pushes forward) have created a society that is divided into several rigid classes, with the best of the best (custom ordered and built humans) on the top and normal-birth humans on the bottom. Vincent Anton is one of those normal-birth humans, and the entire story of the film revolves around his life and dream of being one of the elite few granted permission to rocket off the planet and explore the universe.

Vincent Anton roaming through the discriminative hallways at Gattaca.

Vincent Anton roaming through the discriminative hallways at Gattaca.

 

Without going too far into detail, the part of Vincent’s life that the movie focuses on is his becoming a “borrowed ladder.” Borrowed ladders are members of society that assume the identity of another person through taking their blood, urine, eyes (through contact lenses) and even skin and hair particles to fake the rest of society into believing that they are the person they’re saying they are. Vincent assumes the persona of Jerome, a man who was built perfectly, but ended up in a wheelchair after a car accident. Because he’s in the wheelchair, he feels that society doesn’t want him, so he offers up his identity to someone who might be able to make something of himself.

After a murder takes place at the Gattaca building (the place where the upper echelon members of society prepare to fly to space), the majority of the film’s best moments involve extremely tense situations. The whole time watching, audience members like me didn’t want Vincent or Jerome to be discovered. We wanted them to succeed, to achieve their goals. (Even though Jerome wouldn’t really be physically doing anything, he’d be living through Vincent’s actions.) So when Vincent was asked to give blood through the vein or wasn’t home when his doppelganger, Jerome was visited by a police detective, everyone was on the edges of their seats. It was really exhilarating to be put in the life of an outcast turned celebrity, while at the same time a fugitive.

Another aspect of the film that I like revolves around the way everyone acts. Just like in i, Robot and the films mentioned before, it seems that people in the future all walk and talk like robots and machines. They all have clear purposes and goals, and not conforming to the rest of society makes them stand out tremendously. In Gattaca, everyone who isn’t a borrowed ladder is living a life where all they do is deceive themselves on how messed up and disorganized the segregated society really is.

There's always that one character that stands out from the rest. In the case of i, Robot, Detective Spooner is very different from the "human robot" counterparts of society.

There’s always that one character that stands out from the rest. In the case of i, Robot, Detective Spooner is very different from the “human robot” counterparts of society.

 

I also really enjoyed the fact that Vincent needs glasses to see (since he was born naturally, he couldn’t be altered to have no visual acuity problems). It’s very ironic that the character who needs glasses to see is actually the one who sees society and the people who make it up the best. That, and it gave the filmmakers the chance to experiment with some extremely disorienting and nerve-wracking footage during a scene where Vincent needs to cross a busy street to regroup with his love interest while he doesn’t have his contacts on (he had to shed them at a police checkpoint).

Before the movie ended, I knew that there were only three real ways to make it happen: One, Vincent somehow achieves his goal (happy ending), Two, Vincent is somehow not allowed to achieve his goal or determines that he never will make it “upstairs” (sad ending), and Three, what happens to Vincent after the film ends is left for the audience members to decide. It’s safe to say that I was correct in that assessment, seeing as one of those three general outlines is how the film actually ends.

The way that Gattaca ties together so many aspects of a future society is very intriguing, and really makes viewers think about the way society is moving. Who knows how things will be in 50 to 100 years? Will robots or machines have taken over and developed/advanced past the intellectuality of human beings (the Matrix, i,Robot or Surrogates paths), or will society have developed a new breed of super humans that begin segregating themselves to the point of one class having total control and authority over everyone and everything else (the Gattaca, EquilibriumAoen Flux or Ultraviolet paths)? I guess we’ll all have to wait and see how things play out in the future.

 

 

*** SEMI-SPOLIER BELOW ***

 

 

By the way, why does that incinerator have a start switch on the inside!? I mean seriously, the people who designed the device thought there was a time and place where that might be a good, safe idea?