Does George Clooney have a box-office death wish? You have to wonder why the star of Ocean’s Eleven would risk his standing as a pinup for ka-ching to direct, co-write and co-star in a movie set in the 1950s, shot in black-and-white and focused on a fifty-year-old battle between TV newsman Edward R. Murrow, indelibly played by David Strathairn, and the Commie-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Wonder no more. Clooney knows exactly what he’s doing: blowing the dust off ancient TV history to expose today’s fat, complacent news media as even more ready to bow to networks, sponsors and the White House. As Murrow said in a 1958 speech, which frames Clooney’s dynamite film, the powers that be much prefer TV as an instrument to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate.” Challenge is a loser’s game.
Not in this movie. In ninety-three tight, terrifically exciting minutes, Clooney makes integrity look mighty sexy. With the help of cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Stephen Mirrione. Clooney turns the CBS newsroom into a hothouse of journalistic risk-taking. It’s exhilarating to watch as Murrow decides to use his CBS news show See It Now (it ran from 1951 to 1958) to call McCarthy’s bluff. Murrow persuades network boss Bill Paley (Frank Langella is a marvel of scary, seductive command) to hold the sponsors at bay while he and producer Fred Friendly (a subtly forceful Clooney) lay out a battle plan.
As a director, Clooney moves with admirable speed and economy. He sometimes tripped over his ambitions in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his 2002 debut behind the camera. But here his hand is assured, his wit focused, his target never in doubt. This self-confessed “big old liberal,” raised in the heat of media debate as the son of TV journalist Nick Clooney, is a born muckraker. With Good Night, and Good Luck – the words used by Murrow to sign off his broadcasts-Clooney emerges as a powerhouse filmmaker. The film only rarely leaves the CBS studios, but Clooney establishes the furtive atmosphere of the time. Reporter Joe Wershba (an avid Robert Downey Jr.) must hide his marriage to a fellow staff member (the reliably superb Patricia Clarkson) because of network rules. News anchor Don Hollenbeck (a deeply touching Ray Wise) is driven to suicide by a Redbaiting columnist. Clooney has taken some flak for using singer Dianne Reeves as a bridge between scenes, but her bold jazz stylings – in the manner of George’s aunt Rosemary Clooney – fit right in with the film’s insistence on upturning the standard version of history. These aren’t white guys in suits flexing their muscles to win ratings. These are news-people flying by the seat of their pants for something they believe in, even if it costs them big time.
At the center of the storm is Murrow, standing firm against the push for compromise. It’s a bitch – not to mention a bore – to play a noble monument. Strathairn dodges that pitfall by making Murrow fallible, funny and human. Chain-smoking off the air and on, he mines the humor in the deft script by Clooney and producer Grant Heslov. Murrow wasn’t so lofty that he refused to interview celebs for the CBS show Person to Person. Clooney includes a hilarious clip of gay pianist Liberace being asked by Murrow if he’s ready to settle down with the right girl. Helping to spawn celeb journalism on the tube is a sin Murrow never lived down. His distinction came in picking his battles. Strathairn lets us see the war in Murrow’s eyes as he takes on McCarthy not just for confusing dissent with disloyalty, but for deciding to smear Murrow himself when the senator makes an appearance on See It Now. A spark of rage burns in Murrow, and Strathairn shows us the flame. Best known for his work in the films of his Williams College friend John Sayles (check out Passion Fish right now if you haven’t seen it), Strathairn comes into his own with this career role, to which he brings three decades of acting expertise. It’s a performance of ferocity and feeling that you won’t soon forget.
A word here about the guy who plays McCarthy. You have to forgive the way he overdoes the sweaty, manipulative monster aspects of the role, because, thanks to Clooney’s judicious use of actual film footage, McCarthy plays himself. The studio is pushing for a posthumous Oscar nomination.
I think not. More Oscar justice would be done in the name of the live ones. For a paltry $8 million, Clooney has crafted a period piece that speaks potently to a here-and-now when constitutional rights are being threatened in the name of the Patriot Act, and the American media trade in truth for access. “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason,” said Murrow. Amen to that, brother. Good night, and good luck.