There’s a big fat moral to Good Night, and Good Luck, a bold-faced cautionary analogy about journalism, ethics and flag-wrapped zealotry, but that’s actually the worst reason to watch director George Clooney’s blissfully spare retelling of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s public battles with Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Red Scare.
See, anybody with cable television or an AM radio already knows political discourse in this country is at a polarized peak not seen since the days when McCarthy lied, slandered and terrified his way to a brief period of significance. McCarthy finally was stopped by many people over many months, and some happened to be in the media. Murrow was among them, and he coolly stared down this corrupt ideological tyranny with a poise and charisma that have inspired Clooney and others to think of him as a Sir Thomas More for the information age, standing up for integrity while everybody else cowered.
That’s all obvious in David Strathairn’s performance, in which he barely cracks a smile while aping the timbre of Murrow’s riveting voice, and in Clooney’s direction, which frames Strathairn in close-ups and stark lights that can only be described as worshipful. Clooney, a gloriously straight-faced Hollywood liberal, believes in genuine inspiration and human goodness as only liberals truly can, and he has made a hero’s tale. Murrow and his news team, the scrupulously researched screenplay says, were inspirations for their time and ours, a black-and-white example of courage in our increasingly dingy world.
That’s all fine, but it tells us absolutely nothing we didn’t already know'and it encourages audiences to think about the media in a way that’s just as sloppy as believing Fox. Journalism is just different now, squeezed and shaped by regular people working for large corporations who recognize the public’s waning hunger for the details and responsibilities of being a grownup. Those who believe this mental broccoli should be force-fed to the populace usually don’t want to pay for that particular famine-relief program'so they whine about the media’s flaws, blaming our small appetites on the chefs.
If you spend too much time lamenting the media’s demise, as Murrow does in a speech framing the film’s proceedings, you’ll miss the real fun of Good Night, and Good Luck: its qualities as a smooth, beautiful, tremendously clever period piece with more than its share of modern comforts. Everything about this film is cool, from the black-and-white cinematography to the meticulous sets to the tendrils of white smoke curling from Murrow’s endless conga line of cancer sticks. Clooney, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and crisp white shirts as producer Fred Friendly, is still the coolest man on the planet, while his supporting cast (including Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella and Tate Donovan) is punctuated by Ray Wise’s unshowy scenes as doomed newsman Don Hollenbeck.
McCarthy plays himself in newsreels and other footage, and there’s a fine film waiting to be made about the villain himself and the famously homoerotic undertones of the whole endeavor, including his counsel, Roy Cohn. But Clooney sticks to a series of re-creations and imagined behind-the-scenes discussions as CBS braces itself to challenge McCarthy. The scenes play in long form, with every word given a weight that words just don’t often get. Clooney is trying something remarkable here, even if it’s centered around a tired tale of good and evil'though it’s also compelling to wonder how much directing Clooney actually does, and how much he borrows from business partner Steven Soderbergh or leans on his 15 producers (!) or his cinematographers, in this case Robert Elswit.
There’s really only that one story to Good Night; a subplot involving producer Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) and his secret marriage to a colleague (Patricia Clarkson) goes nowhere and means nothing, probably inserted just to please the couple, who served as consultants. Brush aside the morals and parallels to the current George W. fiascoes, as Clooney has wisely done in interviews; this is a small film about two driven men in a particular moment in our history, filmed as slickly and smartly as possible. Simply enjoy a short story that’s well worth telling.