'Good Night, and Good Luck' pays homage to CBS news legend Edward R. Murrow for going up against anticommunist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, when few in the '50s-era media would dare. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified the committee which Sen. McCarthy chaired.]
As portrayed by David Strathairn, Mr. Murrow is a chain-smoking, tight-voiced champion who turns mythic before our eyes. His producer at CBS, Fred Friendly, played by an uncharacteristically clean-shaven George Clooney (who also co-wrote and directed), gapes at Murrow with a mixture of awe and gratitude. Murrow seems to confirm for Friendly and the other CBS staffers the reason why they got into journalism in the first place.
Shot in lustrous black and white by Robert Elswit, the film itself seems at times like a relic of the '50s. It has a Golden Age of Television patina. The action, most of which takes place inside the CBS studio and offices, has the hardbitten edge of TV problem dramas in the Paddy Chayefsky mold. People fume and bark and declaim as if their dialogue were spelled out in capital letters.
Clooney's seat-of-the-pants approach to dramaturgy doesn't leave much room for psychological depth. Murrow isn't really a character in this film; he's a beacon for others to follow. And clearly the filmmakers believe his example is worth following. Although Clooney doesn't overdo it, we are obviously meant to draw parallels between the timidity of the press and the climate of fear, then and now. In one scene, Murrow justifies the decision to pursue his televised attack on Senator McCarthy by pointing out to the assembled staff that "the terror is here in this room." (So is a maelstrom of cigarette smoke. This is the smokingest movie since the heyday of Bette Davis.)
"Good Night, and Good Luck" is a solid achievement, but those in the press who have been trumpeting its greatness may be going in for a bit of self-congratulation. The movie plays very well to the choir. Murrow comes across as so saintly that even his stints interviewing the likes of Liberace for his celebrity-interview show are explained away as the price you pay to bring down the bad guys.
Murrow's broadsides against McCarthy were heroic, and necessary. But the images I remember most from "Good Night, and Good Luck" are not the hero-worshippy tableaux but, rather, the closeups of CBS newsman Don Hollenbeck, heartbreakingly played by Ray Wise, when he hears himself being personally targeted by McCarthy's venom. His stricken features are the emblem of all those who were annihilated by the witchhunt. Grade: B+
• Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language.