Movie Review: Good Night, and Good Luck.
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
They had voices then.
With a delivery like the Voice of Doom's slightly more optimistic brother, Edward R. Murrow brought the London Blitz to war-fixated radio listeners, which in turn brought international fame to the man behind the CBS microphone. Making the move to television and bolstering his reputation on the documentary program "See It Now," sponsored by ALCOA - when a specific installment proved too hot for ALCOA, Murrow and producer Fred Friendly simply paid for it themselves - Murrow came to TV and the 1950s with a face to match the voice: stern, sonorous, a template of the seriously authoritative TV broadcaster. And there was something else: the smoke curling up toward the studio ceiling from the vicinity of that dear old Eisenhower-era prop, the cigarette.
In 1954, Murrow and Friendly's "See It Now" took on Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and the Wisconsin Democrat's campaign to rid the American government of Communists, known or unknown, real or hoked-up. The report went well for Murrow, at a time when standing up to McCarthy meant likely career doom, depending on the squeamishness of the advertisers and the networks and the rabidity of the gossip columnists.
This is the subject of "Good Night, and Good Luck," an absorbing picture shot in high-contrast black and white. It regards an era that McCarthy, seen here in extensive newsreel excerpts, in full, weirdly mesmeric bray and brow-sweat, saw only in stark moral contrasts, without a jot of gray.
Director and co-screenwriter George Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have fashioned a sleek broadcast journalism procedural. Even with its drawbacks - it's so intent on keeping the focus tight, it stints on the larger paranoiac context of the age - it's worth seeing. It's worth it especially now, in this knotted-up journalistic age of unparalleled crassness and timidity, a combination that does not feel like a viable model for the future.
Being a procedural, "Good Night, and Good Luck." - the title, which is complete with full-stop period, comes from Murrow's on-air signoff - does not get into Murrow's family life. Like "Capote," another film about a celebrity journalist at the top of his game, the Murrow portrait concerns six years, 1953 to 1958. David Strathairn portrays Murrow. While his own reedy vocal instrument is very different and less intimidating than Murrow's golden throat, he has the steely gaze and wry insight to suggest off Murrow's persona.
In the early '50s, America couldn't switch on its collective TV set without hearing McCarthy slather himself in righteous self-pity about being "kicked and bullwhipped and damned," or drone on about the "secular progressive jihad that is being waged all over America." Actually, that second quote comes from a Bill O'Reilly column that ran this week, which may explain why "Good Night, and Good Luck." is a period piece that speaks to more than one period.
Director Clooney and cinematographer Robert Elswit fare best in re-creating the smoke-choked conference-room fellowship of Murrow and company, when the air is filled with talk of loyalty oaths and blacklists. The performances are all of an effective, non-histrionic piece. Robert Downey Jr. plays reporter Joe Wershba. Patricia Clarkson plays Shirley, his wife, forbidden by CBS company rules to be married and working together. Ray Wise plays CBS announcer Don Hollenbeck, hounded by columnists for his "pinko" reputation.
In the wake of Murrow's eloquently phrased attack on McCarthy, which generated 75,000 calls, telegrams and letters running 10 to 1 in Murrow's favor, the broadcaster was protected and championed - for a while - by CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella). Murrow's other show, the celebrity profile softball known as "Person to Person," helped mitigate the political fallout generated by "See It Now."
Here Clooney goes a bit soft. The Murrow we see doing "Person to Person" is clearly filled with disgust at having to interview Liberace (hilarious actual footage here). In truth, Murrow was more conflicted about it, or at least appeared to be when the cameras were rolling. Clooney and Heslov's script is sharp as far as it goes, but you wish it went deeper. Murrow is depicted as a taciturn dichotomy, composed as all get-out on air even with his leg twitching like mad just out of camera range. Yet the man beneath the persona remains half-formed as a dramatic subject.
The result, then, is good, not great. But it is hard to come by good films about media and politics, and why the intersection thereof matters so much in a democracy.
"Good Night, and Good Luck."
Directed by George Clooney; screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov; cinematography by Robert Elswit; production design by Jim Bissell; music by Jim Papoulis; edited by Stephen Mirrione; produced by Heslov. A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 21. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: PG (mild thematic elements and brief language).
Edward R. Murrow - David Strathairn
Shirley Wershba - Patricia Clarkson
Fred Friendly - George Clooney
Sig Mickelson - Jeff Daniels
Joe Wershba - Robert Downey Jr.
William Paley - Frank Langella
Don Hollenbeck - Ray Wise