A vital chapter of mid-century history is brought to life concisely, with intimacy and matter-of-fact artistry in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” In his second directorial outing, George Clooney pays tribute to the golden era of black-and-white ’50s television drama and to a moment when a smart, brave news broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, successfully confronted the hysteria being whipped up by a political bully, Sen. Joseph McCarthy; latter element assures pic’s status as the liberal feel-good movie of the year. Strong critical reaction likely to emanate from bows at the Venice and New York film festivals, as well as extensive off-entertainment page coverage, will translate into an enthusiastic audience embrace in specialized release, although pic’s small scale and period setting will test Warner Independent’s ability to muscle such a film through to a more general public.
From the first minute he’s onscreen, David Strathairn is Edward R. Murrow. From the lean physique and dark features to his taciturn air, imperturbable disposition and implacable directness of address, the habitually understated actor entirely inhabits the biggest screen role of his career. In a piece not intended as a psychological study, Strathairn quietly suggests the ways in which Murrow’s challenge of McCarthy tested the depth of his character’s nerve, resolve and self-certainty. It’s a tour de force performance of great subtlety in a deliberately narrow range.
Framed by a speech Murrow gave at an industry tribute in 1958, script by Clooney and Grant Heslov is set between October 1953 and the spring of the following year, with the action almost entirely confined to the CBS studios and offices. Focus remains intently upon intelligent, aggressive professionals doing their jobs: fielding information, weighing its merits and making decisions based on the importance of news and the risks of putting it out over a new, commercially driven medium.
No time is spent explaining who Murrow and McCarthy were or even who was president; young or foreign auds not familiar with such basics will either have to get up to speed in advance or pay extra-close attention. At the outset, the 45-year-old Murrow hosts two of the most notable shows on CBS-TV, the news-and-commentary-oriented “See It Now” and the popular celebrity interview program “Person to Person.”
Against the background of demands for employee loyalty oaths and the communist witch hunts orchestrated by the senator from Wisconsin in his position as chairman of the Government Committee on Operations for the Senate, the “See It Now” team takes up the cause of airman Milo Radulovich, who has been summarily discharged from the armed forces without trial and based on sealed evidence. With the nervous backing of the network and despite pressure from military brass, Murrow challenges the dismissal on the air, with the figurative result of making McCarthy blink.
Predictably, however, Murrow begins being painted with the same pinko brush that’s short-circuiting the career of fellow CBS newsman, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise). Murrow must also endure tense meetings with his boss, William Paley (Frank Langella), who, while insisting his staff be politically “clean” and suggesting that the public prefers safe entertainment to topical controversy, reminds his star broadcaster that he has never censored or disallowed anything Murrow wanted to put on the air.
With newsroom action and dialogue flowing in the manner of ’30s newspaper melodramas, it’s not always entirely clear who’s who and who does what. Most prominent, however, are Murrow’s “See It Now” producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), a dynamic collaborator and supporter of his on-air partner, and Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), valued team members who, due to network rules, must keep their marriage secret.
Paley’s backing enables Murrow to go ahead with the March 9, 1954, broadcast in which he takes on McCarthy by rebutting the smear campaign against him, then by boldly spotlighting the senator’s lamentable technique of making accusations without evidence, with the intent of stirring the public to rise against the prevailing climate of fear.
Offered the opportunity to respond, McCarthy persists in his unspecified slander of Murrow and others and fails to address the newsman’s charges.
As presented here, Murrow’s successful confrontation with McCarthy can be seen as the beginning of the senator’s undoing; his hearings continued — some viewers will be surprised to see archival footage of the young Robert Kennedy on the team with Roy Cohn during one of the latter’s harangues — but the tide began turning, leading to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate. A very amusing throwaway moment has Murrow genially conducting a live cross-country interview with Liberace while desperately trying to overhear details of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Clooney and his co-scenarist, producer and fellow actor Heslov lay out the contemporary relevance of some of the issues for anyone to see, particularly as regards civil liberties and the existence of an extreme socio-political divide in the United States. But they don’t push it, which frees the film from the dreaded limitation of preaching to the choir. In fact, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” is the second picture this year from ostensibly liberal-left filmmakers (after the hit Sundance docu “Why We Fight”) to use speeches by President Eisenhower to endorse their perspectives on post-war American history.
Robert Elswit’s agile, lustrous black-and-white lensing mixes beautifully with the vintage 16mm and kinescope material in which McCarthy himself and others are seen. While Clooney’s elegant, on-the-move visual style makes no attempt to match the more static, high-contrast look of ’50s TV, it is nevertheless highly evocative of it, providing a rich atmosphere for the densely packed drama. All other design elements, from the credible newsroom and studio sets to the detail of the period equipment, are exemplary.
Strathairn is first among equals in the exemplary ensemble, with Clooney’s vigorous Friendly, Langella’s polished and authoritative Paley and the more understated duo of Downey and Clarkson making the strongest impressions.
Led by the chain-smoking Murrow, whose persona was not complete without a cigarette in hand, practically everyone here smokes like a furnace, so much so that the anti-smoking-in-movies fanatics would have to slap “Good Night, and Good Luck.” with a XXX rating. With saner heads still prevailing, pic is rated PG, enabling younger audiences the unimpeded opportunity of a thoroughly absorbing glimpse into recent history.