Actor/Director George Clooney pays tribute to truth and decency amid distrust and uncertainty in the Communist witchhunts with his recreation of its greatest hero, the newsman of newsmen, Edward R. Murrow, in Good Night, and Good Luck.
In the early 1950's, the Communist scare and the subsequent subversion of citizens' rights was at its apex with blacklists and rampant accusations resulting in ruined lives and careers. Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) was the grand master of the news airwaves in the infantile medium of television. With his show's director, Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and his production team, he picks one obscure news item regarding an Air Force serviceman who is dismissed due to unspecified charges. Murrow and CBS essentially take on the US Air Force amid this climate of suspicion and presumed guilt. Later, Murrow's team takes on Senator Joseph McCarthy by making critical comments of the senator's own words and contradictions. McCarthy retaliates with accusations of Murrow's supposed association with un-American groups just as the parent network, CBS, reels under sponsorship pressure and the unpredictable whims of network president William Paley (Frank Langella). As Murrow and his own staff come under tense scrutiny by McCarthy and even CBS, public reaction and the response of the print media come to the forefront.
Nothing can compare to the words that were written and spoken with such conviction and honesty as those uttered by Murrow. The title of the movie is a direct quote that Murrow employed to sign off each week at the close of his interview shows. The filmmakers (including director Clooney and writers Clooney and Grant Heslov) were wise to let the text stand on its own. They also benefit from good performances from a cast headed by Strathairn (L.A. Confidential, A League of Their Own), a journeyman actor who has finally found a core role to call his own, and he makes the most of it. He gets the mannerisms and cadence down quite convincingly, and while Strathairn may not look exactly like Murrow, he has the persona nailed. Frank Langella (Dave) is excellent as the mercurial Paley whose support of Murrow was tenuous at best. Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) registers in what could have been a more defined role as a doomed newsman whose guilt by association triggers some life changing events. Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent) and Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin) as secretly married staffers, Joe and Shirley, round out the cast. Ironically, perhaps the best performance can be attributed to McCarthy himself as newsreels offer a fascinating, perverse glance at the infamous politician whose flamboyance and dogged theatrics doomed the careers of many government officials and film or television actors. The duel between Murrow and McCarthy seems like two heavyweights going at it verbally in the public arena.
The cinematography by Robert Elswit (Magnolia) is crisp and starkly lit in black and white to evoke the past. The production design and costumes are consistent with the period. Just the sight of newsmen typing on old style typewriters or production assistants carrying around film reels instead of videotape or discs is amusing. The editing by Stephen Mirrione (Traffic, 21 Grams) is tight and well paced. At times the studio broadcasts of a female blues singer bridges various sequences in theme and mood. The broadcast of a live network news program is staged with realism and with the frenzy and excitement that only live television could bring. One wonders what TV veterans like Sidney Lumet or Robert Altman could have brought to the table.
Murrow's show was kind of a precursor to the current granddaddy of all prime time news shows, 60 Minutes. It was interesting to see that his was not a perfect career having to mix fluffy showbiz interviews with such personalities as Liberace on his Person-to-Person show with legitimate news reports. At 93 minutes, the film surprisingly seems a bit short. You almost feel like this is a big budget episode of the famous You Are There reenactment shows. The story ends almost abruptly as it begins being bookended by a formal event honoring Murrow in 1958.
A couple of things don't quite work in the film. The characters of Joe and Shirley must come to terms with the network's policy forbidding marriage among its coworkers, but this subplot doesn't significantly serve to move the story forward. Clooney shows a workman-like approach to directing the film but it just doesn't grab you as emotionally as you would like. You sit there entranced by the history but are never fully given to the pathos of its characters. Instead, the film becomes almost a quasi-documentary bereft of much feeling.
As previous films have dealt with the Red Scare and blacklists, this film compares favorably with The Front and the great television movie Fear on Trial. Although the Soviet Union was a major threat to the United States during the Cold War, the accusatory enemy from within was perhaps as great a menace. The implications and parallels to today's political climate and the role television has in shaping perception are clearly the point Clooney and gang are trying to make. Murrow's formal speech, which begins and ends the film's story, is itself a prophetic and sobering commentary and indictment of the possibilities of television and foreshadows the future with amazing prescience. It shows that one man made a difference. Such is the testament to a heroic reporter whose integrity this film manages to capture, albeit in a brief history lesson.