Though it may have been some kind of career-long desire for George Clooney, whose father was a Cincinnati and Lexington broadcaster through much of the mid-century, Good Night, and Good Luck, with its return to the cultural havoc of McCarthyism is aptly timed. If it functions only as a kind of mini-realist, moral-minded history lesson for today’s principle-free media circus and giga-shopped news victims, that alone would make it a landmark in new-millennium Hollywood. On the other hand, Clooney’s brilliantly orchestrated and seriously respectful movie can be seen as a grim shoulder tap, lamenting the social irresponsibility of what Gore Vidal likes to call the “United States of Amnesia”—have the lessons of 1953 ever found a deep seat in our memory? Karl Rove would say no, and he’d have an easy case to make. The past may not even be past, and Joseph E. McCarthy, playing himself here in the preserved video nightmares of television’s messy adolescence, scans as one part Nixon, one part Cheney, and one part insecure Lex Luther, bawling and huffing his way to infamy.
It’s a stunning performance, but it’s only the archival anchor stone of Good Night, which is otherwise a meticulous period piece, down to the omnipresent tobacco consumption (just watching I could feel the dark spots form on my lungs). Shot in pearly, newsy black-and-white, Clooney’s sophomore directorial shot sticks closely to the details at hand: the slow step up to the plate performed by popular CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) in response to McCarthy’s HUAC witch hunt, essentially constituting a sole voice crying in a wilderness of shit-scared American journalism. Hardly fleshed out as a character in the screenplay, Strathairn’s Murrow remains as much of a humorless, hangdog icon to us as the real Murrow represented to his millions of faithful viewers; his most expressive scenes are broadcast editorials, addressed directly at the camera. The show’s production team does all of the reactive heavy lifting, including producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), and it’s the evocation of the era’s office spaces and studio bustle, tamped down but not quite fizzled by anti-Communist paranoia, that makes the movie bloom. The ensemble—including Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., and Ray Wise, as suicidal anchorman Don Hollenbeck—all find their moments in Clooney’s dense, all-business tumult, but the film is conscientiously about comradeship and community.
Perhaps too specifically so—Good Night‘s modest budget constricts the action almost exclusively to the bell jar of the workplace, leaving us eventually hankering for a taste of the wide world outside. In a strategy that certainly makes its own topical statement, the larger context of the Murrow staff’s on-air contest with McCarthy is provided exclusively through the tube. Still, the Senate hearings themselves are taken as read and shown to us in precious snippets. Clooney’s priorities lie with Murrow and his nonchalant heroism, using his career and reputation to face down a public demon no one else dares cross—even if, as NBC president William Paley (Frank Langella) points out, Murrow’s ripostes against McCarthy’s mendacious practices are not necessarily disagreements with his Red-hunting purposes. The film is succinct and compact and unpretentious, but between its lines lurks a vast and chaotic social struggle, among ethical rectitude, private preservation, and the duties of media to support the citizenry, not, as Murrow says in podium polemic, “to distract, delude, denude, and isolate us.”
Good Night, and Good Luck‘s primary handicap is history itself—the toe-to-toe televised dialogue between McCarthy and Murrow was, however arguably vital to the Wisconsin senator’s eventual retreat, brief and less than epochal. Even so, the wonderfully mustered context wins out: Clooney’s film is meant to reflect the present state of fourth estate bankruptcy and federal fraud, but it’s also an invigorating day trip into a more sophisticated yesteryear and maybe something of an eye-opener for culturati born since the Nixon administration, for whom an anchorman who speaks in multiple clauses, who quotes from Shakespeare, and whose basic righteousness dictated his actions is as familiar as a politician with respect for his constituents.