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George Clooney leaps into the top ranks of
writer/directors with Good Night, and Good Luck, a smart, pointed, timely
and superbly realized biopic about broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow's courageous
confrontation of the sleazy, destructive political opportunism of Senator Joseph McCarthy,
the unprincipled witchhunter of the mid-twentieth century.
Maybe you had to have lived through it to appreciate the crushingly oppressive air that hung over the United States in the 1950's. The cold war was intense and fear of the USSR and the international Communist movement was widespread in the United States. McCarthy fanned those fears and, as chair of a Senate subcommittee, held extensive hearings, watched by millions on television, in which witnesses were questioned about their connections to Communist or Communist-sympathetic organizations and asked to name others as well. On the flimsiest of evidence (rumors, innuendo, hearsay), a web of lies, and guilt by association, McCarthy ruined careers, destroyed lives, and turned the principles of justice and democracy on their head, all in the name of anti-Communist patriotism.
As Clooney makes clear, the fear of being targeted by McCarthy pervaded the newsrooms and media. CBS (among many corporations) required its employees to sign loyalty oaths and swear that they had never been members of Communist organizations. In the face of that kind of pressure, Murrow challenged McCarthy, revealing the lies and deceptive techniques. His courageous stand led the charge that ultimately deflated the demagogue.
Filmed in black and white, Good Night, and Good Luck utilizes archival television footage of McCarthy and the hearings, footage which is seamlessly integrated with the contemporary reenactment of the events in the CBS newsroom. Much of Murrow's own text is used for the broadcast segments, prose of articulate and persuasive power that hasn't been matched since. Murrow's determined fortitude in the face of corporate and political pressures is fully realized in David Strathairn's exceptional performance, one surely to bring an Academy Award nomination. Clooney plays Fred Friendly, co-producer of Murrow's program, Frank Langella exudes power as CBS boss William S. Paley, and some of Hollywood's finest actors round out the cast of newsroom characters.
The intensity of the conflict and the grave political circumstances are provided some relief in the contrast with a clip from Murrow's other popular show, Person to Person (the show that made the money and gave Murrow leverage with CBS), a fluffy bit of interview with Liberace. Satisfying and appropriately moody breaks are also provided in a series of interludes of superb jazz singer Dianne Reeves singing songs of the period.
But Clooney as director keeps the focus tight and paces the narrative with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, albeit with an upbeat finale. Clooney, as screenwriter (along with co-writer Grant Heslov), concentrated on this moment of historical conflict, avoiding digression into other aspects of Murrow's biography, a smart strategy not unlike that in another fine recent biopic, Capote.
In a speech to his peers, Murrow points out that the news media had grown "wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent" and had developed "an aversion to disturbing information," observations that seem particularly timely today when the media supply phony, trumped up debate and cheesy sensationalism. There's no one now who fills the shoes of Edward R. Murrow and that is profoundly discouraging at a time of national divisiveness, war abroad, and self-serving political doublespeak at the highest levels.
- Arthur Lazere