A large part of film storytelling is passive and visual. Art direction and cinematography envelop a film, presenting themselves without intruding on a narrative. What is seen and how it is seen are fundamental choices made by a filmmaker. Decisions revolving around setting and tone influence an audience's acceptance of information. In particular, presenting a film in black and white and its associated art design immediately communicates an emphasis. A black and white world is a reality different from what most people see every day.
This visible exposition is apparent in historical drama films taking place inside of bunkers, or Bunker Films. Characters engage in strife from the shelter of a dark room. The palette, lighting, and lenses of such films build a claustrophobia, focus, and tension through visually recognizable patterns. The limited number of locales and dialogue heavy story allow the cinematography to paint thematic broad strokes around characters. Oftentimes, the high contrast of black and white filmmaking is a symbolic representation of the struggles surrounding a bunker. Distinctions and decisions are made by characters as their "war" story is told in shades of gray. Black and white photography draws lines of emotion, particularly fear versus courage in the face of uncertainty.
George Clooney's 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck is a recent example of a filmmaker choosing to set the philosophical debate of his film in a confined, black and white space. Clooney tells the tale of a newsroom bunker during a contentious time in American history. He uses a variety of traditional black and white filmmaking techniques to create this visual drama, techniques that are filmmaking callbacks to other, older battle bunker films. These films attempt to become bastions of emotional truth. A group of characters defend their truth and alter the world, for better or worse.
In Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney focuses on famed broadcast newsman Edward R. Murrow and his news team as they lob and receive media volleys from their CBS television studio building. From dark, smoke-filled rooms, Murrow, his producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney), and CEO of CBS William Paley plan their "war" strategy.
The film is the historical story of Murrow and his 1953 conflict with Senator Joseph McCarthy. This brief "war" between mid-20th Century personalities is fought on the battleground of television. Murrow makes a principled stand against McCarthy's fear-mongering hunting of Communist spies. From Murrow's perspective, McCarthy is a bully who is violating the law and basic liberties in a power grab. By defending American justice, Murrow and his team are at risk of being ostracized or imprisoned by an overreaching government official. The news anchor hunkers in his studio and confronts the senator with facts. Murrow ostensibly emerges victorious by remaining popular enough to witness McCarthy implode. 1950s television audiences and today's George Clooney credit Murrow with being the face of scrupulous journalism.
By setting his film in the trappings of an early television newsroom, Clooney makes multiple cinematic choices that affect the look and tone of his film. He constructs a believable information command bunker through detailed art design. Clooney, Production Designer James Bissell, and Set Decorator Jan Pascale work to build a functioning, period authentic television studio on a soundstage. Set dressing cameras and footage are run through a switcher and sent in real-time to monitors as if a live news program is being produced. Contextual radio music is recorded live, during the filming of scenes, with a singer in a set sound booth. The old "soap opera elevator trick" is used to give the set height. Characters step into an elevator, and the elevator is rotated to another part of the set. By building a realistic news studio, Murrow's "war room" is constantly busy with information coming in and commands being given.
This realism extends the setting to the cinematography. George Clooney and Director of Photography Robert Elswit present the film as if it is being filmed by television cameras of the era, capturing events as they transpire. Cameras are mostly stationary, necessarily in black and white, and utilize long lenses. This decision subtly leaves the camera as a physical character in the news bunker.
The black and white effect is achieved in an intriguing way. The film is shot in color and post-production processed to black and white in order to maintain control over contrast and saturation. To accomplish this look, Elswit and Bissell paint sets in gray colors and make sure that costumes and props are properly gray balanced. The final image has a distinct palette of dark black and incandescent white. This control of black and white creates a sharp duality between the two sides of the fight in the story, right versus wrong. The news bunker has a delineated alignment.
On top of the lack of color, Clooney uses long lenses to add to the sense of danger in a small space. Long lenses with deep focal lengths compress an image. The near-foreground of a shot is in hyper-focus while the background is blurred. Scenes shot in this manner feel more cramped, especially when the only action is exposition-filled monologues. The result is that characters in Good Night, and Good Luck seem to huddle together in their news/war room, awaiting an inevitable counter-attack from their foe. Character's decisions to engage a United States Senator in information combat are brought into tight focus.
Additionally, the film uses archival footage of Senator McCarthy's television appearances, allowing him to play his own character. The black and white nature of the footage blends with the tone of Good Night, and Good Luck. In this way, the historical reality and the bunker reality of the film occupy the same continuum.
Clooney's acquired use of film techniques found in bunker films from the 1950s and 1960s suggests an emphasis of Murrow's fight as a battle for justice. Emotions from another era are associated with Clooney's film. The choices to use black and white, the tension of a claustrophobic setting, and archival footage are staples of films set in bunkers.
With all of the sitting and talking in Good Night, and Good Luck, the film closely resembles the twin of 1964 nuclear tragedy films Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail-Safe. Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe both contain decision makers penned inside smoke-filled, war room bunkers. Both directors use filmmaking techniques similar to George Clooney to create an historical drama (or science-fiction at the time).
Kubrick and Lumet decide to shoot their films in black and white to create a somber tone. Coming at the end of Hollywood's decades long transition to color films, a black and white film is attention grabbing in its casual anachronism. Scenes set in Strategic Air Command and the President's war room are made cold by being in monochrome, reflecting the insulated world of bunkers and a world on the brink of nuclear devastation. Like in Good Night, and Good Luck, the absence of color creates a duality of decisions, right and wrong. In both Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, the wrong decisions are underscored by the grayscale palette. Wrong decisions lead further from color and further from normal life. Unlike in Good Night, and Good Luck, these two films are shot on actual black and white film stock. The slow speed of the stock and sparse lighting of bunker scenes softens contrast and makes the image dark. The darkness enhances the tension of the film by highlighting people's faces.
Long lenses are used slightly more sparingly by Kubrick and Lumet as opposed to Clooney. Still, close-ups are made tight enough to portray the decision making processes of panicking leaders, particularly in scenes where bomber crews resolve to carry out their missions and annihilate the world. By having an in-focus foreground and an out of focus background, scenes seem to simultaneously be compressed and take place in a void. Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and Good Night, and Good Luck feature these shots to transmit the gravity of a thought.
Where George Clooney includes archival footage to ground his film in historical reality, Kubrick and Lumet use stock footage of test nuclear explosions to create a contemporary surrealism. Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe include footage of jet aircraft, ranging from B-52s and F-104s, flying from one side of the screen to another. This footage does not quite fit with the films as it is not custom made for their stories. The United States Air Force rejects cooperation with these filmmakers because the film portrays pilots and commanders in a foolish light. The footage creates a disconnect between the personal drama of characters and distant bombers gliding across the sky. Nevertheless, Kubrick, Lumet, and Clooney utilize the convenience of combining a black and white film with relatively inexpensive black and white historical footage.
Utilizing the convenience of historical footage in a way similar to George Clooney is René Clément's 1966 film Is Paris Burning? This World War II film written by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola relates the retaking of Paris by Allied forces and French Resistance groups. As such, many of the battle sequences are archival films blended and composited with new footage created for the film. Clément, like Clooney, attempts to include his film in a historically significant context using edited archival footage.
The film revolves around Paris' Nazi military governor Dietrich von Choltitz, Allied High Command, and squabbling French Resistance groups. The action goes from the captured palaces and bomb shelters of the German army to Allied Command tents to the hideouts of Resistance members. Clément keeps scenes in bunkers and tents tight, allowing the individual emotions of command staff to fill the screen as they order men to fight and die. These commands then expand to the wider historical footage of explosions and liberation. Whereas Murrow's news bunker dispatches verbal jabs, Eisenhower's, Leclerc's, and von Choltitz's bunkers dispatch slightly more deadly ordinance. In both Good Night, and Good Luck and Is Paris Burning?, historical footage adds weight to the film through borrowed realism.
Much of the historical footage is in black and white, and Clément decides to match the tone in order to prevent a jarring shift back and forth to color footage. Furthering the decision to film in black and white is the banning of Nazi flags in Paris following World War II. Parisian authorities give the production full authority to film on Parisin streets, except the authority to hang Nazi banners. To skirt the law, Clément and his production staff create green flags with Swastikas, legally different from Nazi banners. This difference is apparent and comical in color photography but can be color corrected to appear like the genuine article on black and white film.
The requirement to the film to be in black and white aids Clément in shaping a mood in a similar fashion to Clooney's film. Clooney uses the black and white palette to represent a period of fear and rigid morality, and Clément does likewise. The city of Paris is a dark place, stifling under a Vichy Regime and Nazi dominance. The city is devoid of color. The title of the film refers to an order given by Adolf Hitler to destroy cultural landmarks, bridges, and infrastructure. von Choltitz struggles with and eventually disobeys this order. He refuses to demolish a city that he finds an eternal beauty. von Choltitz works to stop the Nazis from destroying Paris. At the end of the film, an abandoned phone call from Hitler's Chief of Staff demands to know if Paris is burning. It is not, and the final shots of the film have color return to the City of Lights. The films turns to color aerial shots of Paris.
Clément uses black and white photography and stock footage to create a historical heft to his drama. The drive and visual indicators of a colorless film mesh with archival footage to create an emotional battle of personalities that Clooney attempts in his later Good Night, and Good Luck.
The 1959 film Pork Chop Hill takes black and white historical drama to an extreme potency. Like Is Paris Burning? and Good Night, and Good Luck, director Lewis Milestone uses black and white photography and stock footage to give historical context to his film. The film follows a small group of American soldiers as they retake and defend a strategically insignificant hill from the Chinese Army during the Korean War. Clooney frames Good Night, and Good Luck in terms of a bunker-to-bunker fighting, using the emotions of a battle to create an urgency of dialogue. Milestone's Pork Chop Hill uses the cramped emotions of bunker fighting to create an urgency of life and death.
Pork Chop Hill takes place in and around hastily dug bunkers and battlements as Lieutenant Joe Clemons and the remnants of his company fight to survive on the titular hill. Thousands of Chinese soldiers are headed for the outpost, and Lt. Clemon's men dwindle to only twenty-five. American Commanders order Clemons to hold the hill as long as possible so that it can be used a bargaining point in a cease-fire negotiation. Clemons and his men are not going to be reinforced and are basically left to die. In a comparison to a modern film, the emotional depth of soldiers sentenced to sacrifice themselves by superiors is akin to the muted anguish of Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima.
Black and white photography allows the emotions of the actors portraying the soldiers to paint the scene. As Lt. Clemons informs his men of their situation, panic and desperation play across the screen. Several scenes later, the black and white film is filled with a sense of acceptance and determination. Even later, the blank slate of black and white is colored with the passion of combat. Close-ups are shot with zoom lenses, creating the burdened, anxious feeling of sheltering in a bunker. Gregory Peck, a physically large man, plays Lt. Clemons and adds to the cramped space by filling the frame with his dramatic resolve. In the end, the surviving American soldiers on Pork Chop Hill are relieved by reinforcements.
Pork Chop Hill also uses archival footage and miniatures to depict battle sequences. The separation of actors on a soundstage and out of context explosions and combat movements push the scenes in the bunker further inward. The soldiers in the bunker are fighting against time in more ways than one. They fight the inevitable as they fight an emotionless historical record.
A reasonably specific subset of films center on historical drama set in bunkers. Bunker films establish a mood using art design and cinematography that create a perception of siege defense. Black and white photography and historical footage are two common ways to create a summarily recognizable look. These filmmaking choices surround a film's characters and build their decisions and emotions to an intensity.
George Clooney hopes to borrow this intensity by constructing a historical drama similar to bunker films. He builds his film to be inserted into a historical context, using techniques to make the film appear as a documentary. The film roughly describes an ideal of how events occurred. Clooney intends Good Night, and Good Luck to serve a definitive message: the defense of the truth equates to defending a hard point. This assertion notes that media can change policy as the Fourth Estate. Bunker films represent a small group of people holding out against the world and making a difference, for better or worse.