One doesn't need much more of a reason to go to the movies than this: Edward R. Murrow taking on Senator Joe McCarthy (at the height of his power), crisp black-and-white cinematography, the clink of ice cubes over scotch, voluptuous clouds of cigarette smoke hanging in the air, a nation's conscience dangling in the balance. So it is with George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, a film where the mood - just shy of too cool for its own good - sets the scene for Murrow, the patron saint of journalism, to cajole and castigate the audience in a time of complacency. It also has a great jazz soundtrack.
The story of the witch-hunt has endlessly retold, usually laden with the same self-satisfied 20/20 hindsight that afflicts stories of the civil rights movement, and fortunately Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov see no need to go through it all again. With admirable precision, they've sliced away most all the accoutrements often used to open up the era for the modern viewer, ala Quiz Show. This is a film that takes place almost entirely inside a CBS studio and newsroom, with occasional trips to hallways, elevators, and a network executive's wood-paneled office. Once, they all go out to a bar. It's best in the studio, because that's where we find Murrow - incarnated with almost indecent accuracy by David Strathairn - looking and sounding like as though Rod Serling had decided to rejoin the human race, his manner clipped and astringent, cigarette cocked in one hand like a talisman warding off evil.
The crown jewel of a nascent TV news establishment about to enter its long slide into the sensationalistic mediocrity it lies in today, Murrow's got a bug up his nose about this McCarthy character and is getting tired of bending over backwards to find another side to a story he honestly believes has only one. It's 1953, and that story is Milo Radulovich, an Air Force officer who, after secret accusations about his patriotism were made and he refused to denounce his father and sister, was drummed out of the service. The piece, which makes the CBS brass nervous for its daring to cast the witch-hunt in a less than virtuous light, leads to insinuations that Murrow himself is a fellow traveler on Moscow's payroll, triggering his decision to devote a whole story just to McCarthy. While history shows this was not really a fair fight, with the bullying, bleary-eyed, paranoiac junior senator from Wisconsin hopelessly outclassed, Good Night, and Good Luck is not a triumphant dragonslaying tale. There's another danger lurking behind McCarthyism, and one not so easily defeated.
Avoiding the trippy gooniness of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney keeps things simple here, almost to the detriment of the story. Eschewing not just the broad historical canvas of the previously mentioned Quiz Show, but also the dark, conspiratorial dramatics of journalistic epics like All The President's Men and The Insider, Clooney's film is a hermetic one, not just in its limited settings, but in how little it adds to the historical record. We learn little about the personal lives of Murrow and his co-workers - including Clooney himself as CBS producer Fred Friendly - and even less about the outside world. When the film does stray outside these boundaries, it falls apart rather quickly, most clearly in a wasted subplot involving Robert Downey Jr and Patricia Clarkson as a pair of CBS workers who have to keep their marriage secret so as not to get fired (it's against company policy).
A great bulk of the film is simply composed of archival news footage and Strathairn speaking right at us in Murrow's quick, methodical manner. It's a bracing combination, especially during a framing sequence from 1958 when Murrow lectures fellow journalists on how advertising and the push for profits were squeezing out any hope for serious television news; the words are electric and damningly prophetic, the televisual counterpart to Eisenhower's 1961 "military industrial complex" speech. At one point, CBS chairman William Paley - played with surprising authoritativeness by a majestic Frank Langella - lectures a recalcitrant Murrow and Friendly on how viewers want to be entertained, saying, "They don't want a civics lesson."
Well, that's exactly what Clooney and Co. have given us, a civics lesson. But you could hardly ask for a better one.
Reviewed at the 2005 New York Film Festival.
Six angry men.