Good Night, and Good Luck is the latest in a series of films to be set against the backdrop of the McCarthy hearings, but this one takes a different approach. It’s told completely from a broadcasting perspective. The central character is veteran newsman Edward R. Murrow, who used his program “See It Now” to take on Senator Joe McCarthy and his communist witch-hunt. The movie is set almost entirely in the CBS news facility; it is less a diatribe against McCarthyism (we all know it was bad anyway) and instead looks at how the medium of television was bravely used to point out a grave injustice.
David Strathairn portrays Murrow who, in the opening scene, is receiving an award of recognition. At the podium, he starts to give a speech about how some people view television as little more than an empty vehicle for mindless entertainment. Then we flash back to the early 50’s, where Sen. McCarthy is leading the House Un-American Activities Committee in their search for “card-carrying Communists” within the government. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) follow the situation with interest. They soon get wind of Air Force Lt. Milo Radulovich who was dismissed from his command based on a secret envelope that labeled him a “security risk.” No one knows what the exact accusations are because no one has been allowed to see inside the envelope. He is declared guilty without ever being given a trial. Sensing that justice has been thwarted, perhaps under McCarthy’s orders, Murrow and Friendly decide to do an extended piece about Radulovich.
The show gets a reaction from the McCarthy camp. Murrow wants to do another, where he will directly take on the “facts” presented by the Senator. CBS chief Bill Paley (Frank Langella) openly worries about backlash, but agrees not to interfere. Murrow is eloquent and doggedly factual in his broadcast. He even offers McCarthy the chance to rebut. The Senator takes him up on the offer, even going so far as to accuse Murrow of having communist sympathies. The following week, the newsman goes back on the air to again combat factual inaccuracies and innuendo.
Of course, we all know how the McCarthy era ended, and in the film’s final scene we return to Murrow finishing his speech, where he concludes that television can be a vital source for social change. After seeing his story unfold, it’s hard to deny that fact.
What I love about Good Night, and Good Luck is how stripped-down it is. It has a certain straightforward rawness, in both its black-and-white photography and in its overall tone. Although Murrow addresses his audience directly, the movie itself avoids sermonizing. Instead, it fixes its gaze on what went on in the newsroom. While the harmfulness of McCarthyism is a significant part of the film, it approaches the subject by examining the power of the media. The result is surprisingly suspenseful. When Murrow does his initial broadcast, there is an eerie calm when he signs off the air. No one knows what the reaction will be. They stare at the phones, waiting uneasily for the other shoe to drop. More than anything, Good Night, and Good Luck wants to explore the tension that occurs whenever a potentially explosive news story is broken.
Clooney (who directed and co-wrote with Grant Heslov) uses lots of archival footage mixed in with the actors McCarthy, for example, appears as himself; it’s fascinating to see the real film of him attempting to strike back at Murrow. The use of this footage gives the movie a feeling of authenticity that is riveting. You feel like you’ve been sucked back in time and are now sitting in the CBS newsroom watching things play out. Considering that many (if not most) of us are familiar with this piece of history, that’s quite an achievement.
The performances are outstanding, especially David Strathairn as Murrow. We don’t get much about Murrow outside of work. The film has no use for irrelevant subplots. Instead, it tries to depict his intense passion for news and – more importantly – for facts. He will do whatever is necessary to get the truth, even if it means putting himself in McCarthy’s line of fire. There’s also some great interplay between Murrow and Paley; in exchange for getting to do the McCarthy piece, Paley makes Murrow host a series of frivolous celebrity interviews, one of which requires him to ask Liberace about future marriage plans. Strathairn does a flawless job of showing the character’s insistent drive, no matter the cost.
Frank Langella and George Clooney are also very good, and the fine supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickleson (the number two guy at CBS), Robert Downey, Jr. as reporter Joe Wershba, Patricia Clarkson as Joe’s wife Shirley, and Ray Wise as Don Hollenbeck, a news anchor who accidentally gets in the crossfire.
Good Night, and Good Luck runs 90 minutes, which is another part of its lean-and-mean appeal. There’s not an ounce of fluff here. The whole point is to celebrate the spirit of Murrow and others like him. Television does have the ability to provide disposable entertainment. It also has the power to reveal the truth. Edward R. Murrow understood that power and served as a shining example of how to effectively use it. Good Night, and Good Luck is an admiring tribute to his journalistic integrity.
( out of four)
Good Night, and Good Luck is rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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