Sen. Joseph McCarthy had many co-conspirators in carrying on his Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s in a frightened country that forgot what it stood for. It may not even be fair to call them witch-hunts: Witches never really existed in America, but Communists did. The question was whether they had a right to exist, and whether they posed a threat. The answer -- as everyone knows now and many knew then -- is yes, they did, and no, they didn't, respectively.
In Good Night, and Good Luck, his second film as a director, George Clooney examines this historic moment by recalling a year in the professional life of Edward R. Murrow, the pioneer broadcaster who used a nascent medium and ethical journalism to expose McCarthy's intimidating mendacity.
Shot in black and white, and relying more heavily on archival footage than any drama I can recall, Good Night, and Good Luck is as much a documentary thriller as a film with actors and a script. It's concise, intelligent and highly entertaining, although it's asking quite a bit of multiplex audiences to recognize its discreet connections between then and now.
Murrow (David Strathairn) made his name broadcasting on the radio from embattled Europe during World War II. He became even more famous through See It Now, the groundbreaking CBS-TV program on which he did a little hard news and a lot of celebrity hucksterism. (You can tell he knows that he's spreading a lie when he lets Liberace talk about his desire to marry.)
But in 1953, Murrow came across a newspaper item about a serviceman facing discharge because of his father's putative Communist reading matter. At a hearing, the military never made public the evidence against the father. Murrow thought this was unfair and un-American. He also thought McCarthy's anti-Communist Senate hearings made it too acceptable.
So he did a show raising questions of fairness, then he held his breath. Nobody of consequence called him a Commie. Emboldened, he assembled a See It Now that precipitated McCarthy's Götterdí¤mmerung by exposing his false claims and shoddy investigative procedures.
Clooney makes it clear that Murrow was anti-Communist (he signed a loyalty oath), but never mentions what Murrow wanted done with genuine Commies. No matter: Good Night is a film about newsmakers and news reporters, and it's particularly sharp when it chronicles the tenacity of good journalism. In fact, what Clooney suggests about journalistic standards is far more piquant in 2005 than his riffs about the squandering of TV through its output of banal entertainment.
How can Clooney suggest that TV today doesn't provide enough news and opinion? I could argue that TV provides too much, and that people have learned to tune out the cognitive dissonance of the cable news channels' Shout TV. (He should be telling us to buy a newspaper: Things this complex must be read, not said.) As for accepting innuendo as fact: I trust Clooney will agree that this holds as true for Karl Rove as it does for Hillary Clinton, despite how much we'd like to castigate an administration that labels people "anti-American" for opposing its war. Of course, Clooney is mostly talking about smaller prey: the people being held, without official charges, under the Patriot Act.
The cast is superb: There's Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella (as CBS monarch Bill Paley), Ray Wise (as a newsman who commits suicide when his Communist past surfaces), and Clooney himself as Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer. Strathairn, who virtually channels his character's crisp steely diction, was born to play Murrow in the way Robin Williams was born to play Popeye. Clooney uses footage of the real McCarthy rather than hiring an actor, creating a sort of Forrest Gump in reverse. The technique works because his film concerns itself only with its central characters' public lives.
Clooney's direction is tight and strong, although we could do without the cliché of frenzied TV-newsroom production. All we needed to see was how Friendly cued Murrow to speak: with the tap of a pen on his knee. It's the film's most intimate moment, and a fascinating piece of early broadcast history if it's true. There's no soundtrack music, only a few period songs performed on camera by a jazz vocalist (Dianne Reeves). The movie's title is Murrow's famous sign-off, which now sounds much too ham-handed for a man who wrote such articulate news copy (which we hear copiously in the film).
Good Night, and Good Luck is probably best taken as a glimpse of history rather than an omen of our own disquieting times. In that regard it's compelling, although you have to pay attention to catch the script's many subtleties (there's an especially sardonic crack about Joe Kennedy). Will moviegoers recognize Ike without being told who he is? I'm not sure whether to commend Clooney for his faith in the audience, or scold him for missing opportunities to edify the plebes.
Nobody today tries to defend Joe McCarthy aside from a few stray nutcases in the Dixieland State Home for Anti-Commies. So I wish Clooney had gone even further with his film, indicting a complicit nation along with an insane senator. That would require making the era's fear of Communism more palpable. For a political movie with that level of courage, see Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking. In the meantime, see Good Night, and Good Luck, and decide for yourself whether Clooney shoots the moon or just howls at it.