In Good Night, and Good Luck, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), elegant and severe, the dour straight shooter of postwar broadcast news, prepares to go on air for his nightly report on CBS by lighting up a cigarette. I figured he was calming his nerves, enjoying a smoke as a preshow ritual. But no. The camera blinks on, the broadcast begins, and Murrow is not only still smoking, he’s doing it flamboyantly — his forearm planted on the desk, his hand cocked in the manner of an aristocratic silent-movie star, the entire report punctuated by the no-nonsense virility of his quick, blustery drags. Since Good Night, and Good Luck has been directed, by George Clooney, and written, by Clooney and Grant Heslov, as an unabashed salute to Murrow — his courage and gravitas, his devotion to reporting the truth in the face of corruption and power — it’s a shock, at least for those who didn’t grow up with him, to see this theatrical display of on-air indulgence. Murrow may have been a firebrand, but he was every inch a showman, too.
Set in 1953, the year Murrow dared to expose and fight the bullying clampdown tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck is a curio: an energized sliver of history, smart, sharp, and lively, staged with enjoyable panache, yet so tidy and hermetic and limited in scope that it’s like a one-hour PBS documentary stretched into dramatic form. The film has been shot in silky black and white, a look that evokes the burnished out-of-the-shadows romanticism of Citizen Kane and film noir as much as the buttoned-down world of ’50s TV. Strathairn, his hair greased back, the furrows in his face lit like statuesque crags, does a pitch-perfect imitation of Murrow’s granite scowl and dry-voiced, almost caustic urgency, and Clooney shoots him from dramatic low angles, turning the broadcasts into charged nightly sermons. Good Night, and Good Luck exudes a reverence for what it sees as the faded glory days of TV news, yet it’s also more than a tad wistful for the era of Murrow’s cigarette — for his self-conscious, hard-boiled style of truth-telling. The movie salutes Murrow’s integrity by turning integrity into nostalgia.
In his second outing as a director, Clooney expertly evokes the revved, split-second drama of the early days of live TV, when even the most serious news report could be ”edited” together at the moment it was being shown. He has fun, too, with that homogenized ’50s frivolousness, as when Murrow does a hilarious interview with Liberace. It’s no wonder that the tough newsman, along with his producer, Fred Friendly (played by Clooney as a genial ace politician), is eager to make waves. Drawn to the case of a man tossed out of the Navy for his shaky ”communist” affiliations, Murrow begins to report on McCarthy, his just-the-facts-ma’am approach shading into righteous advocacy. The film turns into a black-and-white showdown of good and evil. McCarthy is seen flinging mud at witnesses in extended vintage news clips, which are woven into the action, as if no mere actor could have done justice to the senator’s sleazy shamelessness. It’s a technique at once effective and self-canceling: We get so caught up in the brutal reality of McCarthy that the movie itself comes to seem, at times, like mere decoration. After all, why not show clips of Murrow, too? You almost could, considering the film never tries to dig beneath his flinty facade. The Murrow who fights McCarthy and stands up to CBS chairman William S. Paley, played with worldly gruff force by Frank Langella, is the only Murrow we see.
There’s a reason that Good Night, and Good Luck, as nimble and craftsmanly as it is, feels thin. The movie’s passion, and in a sense its true subject, remains off screen: It’s there in Clooney’s presumption that the audience will see Murrow taking on McCarthy and make an analogy to the present day, asking itself why no one in our corporatized media culture has dared to take a comparable fearless stand against the Bush administration. But the analogy is facile at best. George Bush, whatever you may think of his policies, isn’t Joe McCarthy, and it’s not as if his most fervent detractors in the press have been silenced. To suggest that the spirit of Edward R. Murrow has been crushed out of journalism is to turn nostalgia for the age of stern father-figure newsmen into the stuff of conspiracy theory.
Good Night, and Good Luck has a small-scale time-capsule fascination, yet its hermeticism is really a form of moral caution — a way of keeping the issues neat, the liberal idealism untainted. ”Look!” the movie says. ”TV news once had room for heroes!” Well, yes, but I’d have been more inspired if the film didn’t have such unquestioned reverence for the age when freedom in media hinged on one saintly man, saving the people from on high.
2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (David Strathairn); Best Director (George Clooney); Best Original Screenplay (George Clooney and Grant Heslov); Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography