by Peter Keough & r & An elegant scolding frames Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney's meticulous and stirring account of the duel between broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Red-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by himself, via archival news footage). Celebrated at a fete in 1958 for his career achievements, Murrow turns on the network-news broadcasters honoring him. "This will probably do no one any good," he begins, and concludes by condemning the new medium for selling out its potential, folding to political and commercial pressure, and becoming a tool "to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us."
Nearly five decades later, with the quality of news ranging from Fox to frivolous, Murrow's criticism seems mild. Is it up to Hollywood to take up the slack? We could do worse than this film. With exhilarating assurance, detail and immediacy, Clooney recreates the swirl of events behind a handful of programs in Murrow's CBS series See It Now.
Sounds like a lot of speechifying, and in black and white to boot, with no violence except an off-screen suicide, and no sex except for a hush-hush office romance (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as secretly wed CBS employees Joe and Shirley Wershba). But Clooney keeps the intensity high with overlapping sound and a roving camera reminiscent of 1970s Altman -- indeed, Murrow and his crew evince some of the anarchic hilarity of a buttoned-down M*A*S*H unit. And though not a single scene is exterior and much of the footage is archival, the atmosphere is electric, not stuffy; it's a world compressed inside a kinescope tube.
The dour mage of this world is Strathairn's Murrow. Except for his badinage with his producer, TV legend Fred Friendly (Clooney), and other colleagues, this is the Murrow of the eloquent script, the rapierlike cigarette and the aquiline stare into the camera. All that is known of his personal world or inner darkness comes from a sidelong glance or the abject slouch into which he settles when, for example, he must interview Liberace for Person to Person, the program that earned his keep at CBS and which was a harbinger of the celebrity culture that passes for news today.
Like the kind of news Murrow embodied, Good Night is more about issues than emotions, style more than personality. It's a reminder of a time when TV journalists challenged authority rather than defended it, drew on indignation rather than on self-righteousness, promoted clarity instead of deceit. As for now -- good night, and good luck.
Peter Keough is a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, where this review first appeared.
Good Night, and Good Luck; Rated: PG; Directed by George Clooney; Starring David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, George Clooney