The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Double Feature #1 - American Politics And The Media


Today, we start a new series on The Watchers Film Show Blog - Double Feature. We'll pick two films that share something in common (for instance, theme, style, cast or crew) and that compliment each other.

The first Double Feature contains two films about American politics and the media. Both films are also based on real-life events.

Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, Ray Wise

In the early 1950's, the threat of Communism created an air of paranoia in the United States and exploiting those fears was Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Wisconsin politician's paranoid assertion that Reds had infiltrated the US fomented panic and, coupled with the House Un-American Activities Committee, lives were ruined by rumour and innuendo. However, CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly decided to take a stand against McCarthy. They broadcast several exposes on their show 'See It Now' which highlighted McCarthy's fearmongering tactics. In a time when few would speak out, Murrow and Friendly did.

The film's title comes from the way Murrow would sign off his broadcasts. Released in black-and-white (although filmed on colour film stock and corrected during post-production), with an outstanding jazz soundtrack, the film is a glorious evocation of the 1950s. This is Clooney's second time in the director's chair and the direction is clean and assured.

The acting is superb- led from the front by a strong and dignified central performance by David Strathairn as Murrow, but ably supported by the rest of the ensemble cast; Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr are a great pairing as the newly-married Shirley and Joe Wershba who must keep their marriage a secret to continue working together and Clooney is as dependable as ever as Murrow's producer Fred. Ray Wise also deserves a mention for his turn as journalist Don Hollenbeck, driven to suicide by accusations of being a leftist. Interestingly, they chose not to cast an actor to play McCarthy and relied on actual archive footage of the Senator instead.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director for Clooney, Best Actor for Strathairn and Best Original Screenplay) but didn't win any. Nonetheless, it's a powerful piece of film-making and an absorbing drama to boot.


Directed By: Ron Howard
Written By: Peter Morgan
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones

The Watergate scandal shook America to its core in the 1970's. In June 1972, there was a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. It transpired that the Nixon administration not only knew about the break-in but attempted to cover up their involvement. Facing impeachment in the House of Representatives, Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. Three years after, Nixon agreed to be interviewed by British talk-show host David Frost. These interviews formed the basis of Peter Morgan's stage play Frost/Nixon, which was adapted for film in 2008, with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen reprising their roles from the original London stage production.

The acting is impeccable throughout: Frank Langella is a total revelation as Nixon, a complex character- slick and charming yet utterly determined; Michael Sheen adds another uncanny impersonation to his already impressive repertoire (following Tony Blair in The Queen and Brian Clough in The Damned United) and it is a shame that his performance as Frost was not recognised more during awards season. Macfadyen is great as BBC producer John Birt, who helped bring the interviews together; Platt and Rockwell are a fantastic double-act as Frost's research team Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr  with Rockwell a ball of righteous anger, determined to get Nixon to admit culpability.

The final interview has all the tension and anticipation of a prize fight. Considering it shows nothing more physical than two men sat opposite one another, the scene absolutely crackles with the same energy of the final fight in Rocky. The battle of wits that ensues is one of the most powerful seen in a film for ages. The film has been criticised for taking certain liberties (or dramatic license, if you prefer) with the truth- it is indeed highly unlikely that Nixon would have called Frost whilst drunk; similarly the climactic final interview was not interrupted when Nixon made a particularly incriminating remark- but the drama is nonetheless absorbing.

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor for Langella, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Howard and Best Editing) but sadly didn't win any. This would also work as a Double Feature with the rather brilliant All The President's Men (1976) about the investigation into Watergate by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

The next Double Feature will focus on two films about the life of writer Truman Capote and the writing of his bestseller In Cold Blood: Bennett Miller's Capote and Douglas McGrath's Infamous.

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