Wallace & Gromit cheese off a Were-Rabbit.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Oct. 7 2005 2:52 PM

24-Carrot Bliss

Wallace & Gromit cheese off a Were-Rabbit, Clooney has a Good Night, and Baumbach harpoons a squid and a whale.

(Continued from Page 1)

More important, the larger battle for Murrow and Friendly in Good Night, and Good Luck is with the network itself. CBS employees have been ordered—on pain of termination—to sign loyalty oaths to the United States; and a gutless midlevel executive (Jeff Daniels, here fatted by complacency) all but begs Murrow to choose another target—preferably, heh-heh, Joe Kennedy. He threatens Murrow with the worst fate imaginable for a journalist with pretensions: more puffy celebrity interviews. (The one shown here, from Murrow's Person to Person, is with a coyly closeted Liberace.) In a big oaken office reeking of power, chairman William Paley (a wittily grave Frank Langella) argues that McCarthy's going to self-destruct anyway and hints that such a broadcast could imperil the network's standing and the careers of its employees. (See "Rather, Dan.")

Not all of Good Night, and Good Luck clicks. I found the moody interludes between acts—smoky jazz numbers, often ironic in context, sung by Diana Reeves—a mite self-conscious. The subplot featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as secretly married CBS employees (such alliances were against the network's rules) seems shoehorned in. As much as I like Strathairn's crisply understated performance, saints don't do much for me. And I could have done with at least the suggestion that some rational people at the time believed Soviet Communism was a threat and that there might have been spies in the State Department.

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But Clooney's (and Murrow's) straightforward message—the movie's raison d'etre—that "we should not confuse dissent with disloyalty" feels especially vital. It wasn't too long ago that Andrew Sullivan was labeling writers who raised questions about the evidence for an invasion of Iraq "fifth columnists" for the enemy. (Although Sullivan has furiously backpedaled on the war, he has not, to my knowledge, recanted that characterization.) Bill O'Reilly declared such critics "Enemies of the State." (The words appeared in bold letters on the screen.) And Ann Coulter topped the best-seller lists with her assertion that most Democrats are guilty of "treason"—which, the last I heard, is punishable by death. (The unhinged Coulter wished actual fiery destruction on staffers at the New York Times—odd timing, given that the faux First Amendment martyr Judith Miller was well into her neocon campaign of disinformation.)

None of those writers or TV personalities has the power to imprison, thank heaven. But, like McCarthy, they are happy to resort to the ultimate smear, the political "smart-bomb." That's why the stand of such a middle-of-the-road figure as Murrow mattered then and, in Good Night, and Good Luck, matters now. ... 2:51 p.m. PT

Correction: Andrew Sullivan writes: "Can you substantiate this smear? Actually, a double smear? If you cannot, would you correct? And did you even bother to check before you wrote it?"

I'm not sure why this is a "double smear" (Is the second one being lumped in with Ann Coulter?) but I do owe Sullivan a correction. I've been reading him for many years, since the beginning of his blog, and once even encountered myself as the object of a "Poseur Alert." (I was grateful when he subsequently apologized, not having read far enough in my piece--to the end of the first paragraph--to discover, before ridiculing it, that it was a parody.) Anyway, I never dreamed that he'd dispute this characterization. But I can only infer that he wants—very wisely—to make a distinction between his enthusiastic, post 9/11 support of the general "war on terror" and his enthusiastic support of the invasion of Iraq.

It's a matter of record that, after 9/11, he wrote, "The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column." But although he thumped the tub for the "eagles" who dared to wage war on Iraq and relentlessly attacked (with Sontag or Chomsky or Begala prizes) those who dared to question the administration's motives, he was relatively balanced on the subject of the war's critics, calling them only "objectively pro-Saddam" and renaming the un-eagle-esque BBC "the Baathist Broadcasting Company." Although Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan wrote in the American Prospect that "Sullivan is setting a truly frightening precedent: the pre-emptive definition of any opposition to U.S. policy as essentially treasonous," Sullivan has since proven that he can give it to Bush with the best of us "paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist" fifth columnists. I admire him a great deal, and apologize for distorting his position.

Clarification: The last sentence is not meant to be entirely snarky. I do admire him, just not for this stuff.

A whale of a film. Click image to expand.
A whale of a film

The best reason to see Noah Baumbach's blistering autobiographical divorce drama The Squid and the Whale (The Samuel Goldwyn Company) is Jeff Daniels as the teenage protagonist's father, Bernard Berkman, a novelist and a titan of self-absorption whose ego envelops his son like a squid. Or is he the whale? I think he's the whale and the mother is the squid: Whales are blowhards while squids have vagina-dentata-like … Never mind. I don't really understand the metaphor anyway, although it makes for a stunning visual climax when the boy, exhausted from all the psychodrama, trudges into New York's Museum of Natural History and contemplates the ancient origins of life. The image obviously resonates in Baumbach, and so this domestic tug-of-war taps into something deeper than the specifics of his Park Slope, Brooklyn, upbringing.

Anyway, the part of the father, closely based on the novelist Jonathan Baumbach, is a classic portrait of wounded vanity, and Daniels—a fine, self-effacing actor who rarely gets a chance to dominate a movie—rises to the occasion and then some. He wears a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard that takes the focus off his cute little cleft chin and puts it on his eyes, which blaze with indignation at the lack of attention being paid him. After early success, Berkman no longer attracts much notice from critics, while his wife, Joan (Laura Linney, in a part based on Baumbach's mother, the former film critic Georgia Brown), enjoys increasing success. Bernard paternalistically suggests changes in her prose, she nods and doesn't take them, and so the balance of power shifts—fatally. It isn't long before Bernard leaves their gorgeous brownstone for a crumbling house in a less desirable neighborhood.

The older son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), shares his father's anger at his mother's ascension, while the younger Frank (Owen Kline), is more of a mommy's boy. (I don't mean that pejoratively.) Baumbach's riskiest strategy is to turn his alter ego, Walt, into a snotty little creep, echoing his dad's imperial dismissals of books like A Tale of Two Cities ("minor Dickens") without actually having read them. Hypercritical, he laments the abundance of freckles on the face of his lovely quasi-girlfriend (Halley Feiffer), but his greatest victim is himself: When he's caught trying to pass off a song he sings at a school assembly as his own, it's clear that he's judging himself by standards too high ever to begin to create anything. You can look at The Squid and the Whale as the truest kind of artistic coming-of-age story: a cathartic piece of self-criticism. 

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