Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley, Fred Friendly, Joseph McCarthy ' there should be a stack of handouts outside the movie theater that's showing George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, cheat sheets that tell us who all the players are and why the game they're playing is so important. Not that the movie doesn't fill us in as it goes along, but there's a lot of ground to cover, ground and background. When Murrow, America's most respected broadcast journalist, went after McCarthy, the senator who'd whipped the country into a frenzy of anti-Communist paranoia in the 1950s, it was one of the golden moments in the history of television. Suddenly, the idiot box seemed to fulfill its destiny as a weapon in the fight for truth, justice and the American way. Then again, the confrontation was squirmingly enjoyable to watch ' hot stuff for such a cool medium. It's hard to believe that, given the chance, Geraldo Rivera wouldn't have done exactly what Murrow did.
But would he have had the stature to make the charges stick? Named for the signoff that Murrow used at the end of each broadcast, Good Night, and Good Luck takes us back to a time when television was still trying to decide what it wanted to be when it grew up. And Clooney, who co-wrote the script and produced the movie in addition to directing, may see it as one of the few times when television actually made a difference. He's obviously in love with Murrow, a man whom it's hard for the rest of us to warm up to, if only because we're given so little personal information about him. Was he married? Did he have kids? Did he wrestle with his decision to risk his career and his network? Did he have any doubts of any kind? It's hard to tell from David Strathairn's quietly confident portrayal. Good Night, and Good Luck is less a portrait of a man than a profile in courage ' the story of a hero who acted heroically.
Strathairn has Murrow down ' the slicked-back hair, the ever-present cigarette, the literary cadences, the almost complete inability to smile. And there's just enough charisma to help us understand why men and women would be willing to follow him off the edge of a cliff. Not that taking on McCarthy when he did could be considered jumping off the edge of a cliff; Murrow was a little late to the game, according to what I've read, something that the movie doesn't choose to acknowledge. But there was real pressure, whether implicit or explicit, from Paley, the head of CBS ' a sense that, if Murrow didn't play his cards right, he wouldn't be back after this message from our sponsors. And McCarthy tried to work up another smear campaign, including allegations that, amounting to little more than smoke, could perhaps be fanned into flames. There was definitely something at stake.
There's definitely something at stake in the movie as well, but because we know the outcome and because the former junior senator from Wisconsin ' who elected this guy? ' has spent the last 50 years in the doghouse, there isn't as much at stake as there perhaps should be, dramatically speaking. There have been some murmurings from the far-right portion of the political spectrum. Even so, opposing McCarthy is still a bit of a slam-dunk. And Clooney could be accused of doing little more than presenting the not-so-instant replay of a slam-dunk. But what a heroic slam-dunk! And what artistry Clooney brings to the filming of it! Shot in black-and-white, evoking the kinescopes of the era, Good Night, and Good Luck creates a cold, clammy climate of fear out of the CBS studio's cramped interiors. We never go outside. In fact, it feels as if there is no outside ' nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, the perfect place for a witch hunt.
As he proved with his first film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney is a bona-fide director, not just some Hollywood hunk trying to beef up his rÃsumÃ. He thinks cinematically, and the decision to let McCarthy play McCarthy ' he appears only in news clips of the time ' was an inspired one, giving America's Big Brother an Orwellian flavor. Clooney also stars as Fred Friendly, the producer of Murrow's "See It Now" program ' an unfortunate casting choice only in the sense that he tends to blow Strathairn off the screen whenever they attempt to share it. Frank Langella's smoothly powerful as Paley, a man who believed in the highest standards of journalism right up to the moment when they risked offending advertisers. Thus do the powers that be, with their hands on the knobs, turn television into "mere wires and lights in a box," a warning that Murrow issues right before the credits roll.
Fifty years later, the warning seems as dire as ever.