As his live television production of “Fail-Safe” showed, George Clooney has an interest in recreating drama with a sharp, fifties/sixties-style sensibility. He also has a desire to express his very distinct–and markedly liberal–political views. This revisiting of the 1954 television confrontation between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, still venerated as an icon of activist journalism, and Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy gives him the opportunity to fulfill both ambitions simultaneously. Happily, “Good Night, and Good Luck”–the title repeats Murrow’s signature sign-off–isn’t just a stirring paean to courageous reporting that challenges the powerful when they mangle the truth or abuse their position (the message that Clooney certainly intends to communicate to the contemporary media); it’s also a crackling good story, told with style and economy.
The approach that the director and co-writer and producer Grant Heslov bring to the tale is tight and focused; not much happens beyond the confines of the CBS broadcasting studio and a bar where the newsmen hang out. (The rare exceptions are the office of William S. Paley, the head of the network; the halls of Congress; and the apartment of two staffers who are secretly married–against company policy.) The portrayal of Murrow is equally limited; we learn nothing of his personal life. It’s his dedication to getting out the truth at all cost–he knows full well that McCarthy will use his customary tactics of personal vilification through allegation of communist sympathies against him–that dominates. The script, drawn largely from the record in recreating the broadcasts but naturally more speculative when it comes to off-record conversation, portrays him as a man of unquestioned anti-communist attitudes whose opposition to McCarthy involved disagreement not with his goals but with his methods. (It precedes the assault on McCarthy himself with a treatment of Murrow’s investigation of the case of Milo Radulovich, who was dismissed from the Air Force because of his family’s supposed communist ties–a program that symbolized the effects of the senator’s tactics on innocent individuals.) It also shows him as a strategist aware that he had to choose his battles carefully (thus his refusal to be more open in his support of anchorman Don Hollenback, a protégé of his who was attacked by McCarthy partisans in the media) and circumspect in his dealings with Paley. Murrow doesn’t come across as a plaster saint here; his uncertainty and concern for the safety of himself and those who work with him is subtly demonstrated as well as his passion for honesty and principles. And the pain he feels at having to compromise himself by doing entertainment programming like “Person to Person” to insure continuing network support for his serious “See It Now” program, even when its controversial character threatened to sour advertisers, is also shown (sometimes in humorouds tones, as when he has to conduct an interview with Liberace).
In painting this portrait of Murrow Clooney is fortunate in having David Strathairn on board. A journeyman actor whose excellence has often graced good films in supporting roles, he here embraces the limelight with a performance of great restraint and power, conveying both the man’s courage and his self-doubt with the most modest of gestures. It’s not mimicry but a performance that effortlessly holds your attention, while never turning showy. Clooney himself does a nicely self-effacing turn as Murrow’s ever-supportive producer Fred Friendly, and Frank Langella cuts a figure of imposing strength (and no little duplicity) as Paley. The rest of the cast pales by comparison, but Ray Wise has a few moments as the nervous Hollenback, as does Jeff Daniels as a network exec who’s often delegated to do Paley’s less savory tasks. Among the staffers, Reed Diamond, Tate Donovan and Robert John Burke stand out. One must also note the elegant black-and-white cinematography of Robert Elswit, which suits the period timeframe perfectly, as well as allowing Senator McCarthy to portray himself in television footage from the fifties–a device that will wisely deflect the charge that his character has been misrepresented by any actor’s portrayal of him, as well as allowing him to convict himself in the film just as he did in real life. (Period footage is also employed in the “Person to Person” sequences, to fine effect.)
All this praise shouldn’t be taken to mean that “Good Night, and Good Luck” is without flaws. A subplot involving those two newsroom employees, Shirley and Joe Wershba, who keep their marriage secret because of company regulations is given entirely too much time, even though the characters are played well enough by Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey, Jr. (and are designed to act to a certain extent as audience surrogates). A linking mechanism involving cutaways to a singer crooning songs into a microphone in an adjacent studio is simply intrusive, though the songs are obviously designed to comment on the action as well as providing period flavor. And on the broader canvas, complaint could certainly be raised about a general slimming down of the record–a lack of full historical context, a simplification of events involving not only Murrow’s personality but the whole anti-communist movement of the period (not all of which, after all, was unjustified).
But to dismiss the picture on those grounds would be to condemn the “Good” as the enemy of the perfect. (The same criticism of failing to tell “the whole truth” could be leveled at “All the President’s Men,” too.) This is a stylish, absorbing account of an episode in American journalistic history that has as much to teach us today as it did Murrow’s audience half a century ago.