In a lesser film about Edward R. Murrow and the way he used television to bring down Joseph McCarthy, there would have been the obligatory unburdening scene with his wife. He would articulate the risks involved in what he was undertaking personally, professionally, and financially, have an emotional breakdown of some sort, and Mrs. Murrow would dutifully offer her dewy-eyed support with a mawkish speech about how he needs to keep fighting the good fight and her immense pride in him for doing so. It would have been, in other words, generic and stale and an affront in that it would distract from the concept that Murrow fought so hard to keep in the public consciousness. What went on between the Murrows may or may not have happened in just that way. It’s none of our business. What is our business, and the business of George Clooney’s GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, is the concept of a free press and the balance, or lack thereof, it strikes between keeping its readers, listeners, and viewers happy and keeping them informed.
Instead, it tells the story in black and white, figuratively and literally, trusting rightly in the inherent drama of the story and its hero to provide all the elements needed for a compelling and thought-provoking film whose issues are as relevant today as they were back in 1953. With direction, script and performances that brook no sentimentality, what is, nonetheless, evident is the sense of moral outrage that doesn’t waste time with anger, but instead channels itself into an exquisitely calibrated assault that exposes hypocrisy for what it is.
It’s the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who is exploiting and exacerbating a rampant paranoia in the United States about the Communist menace that may or may not exist. McCarthy’s campaign relies on innuendo, half-truths, and rhetoric that is light on facts and heavy on pandering to that paranoia and keeping himself in the headlines. It’s not just politics, though, it’s also the Blacklist and loyalty oaths and people’s lives, personal and professional, crumbling if they fall under suspicion, whether any actual disloyalty is proven or not.
The case of an Air Force officer forced out of the military because of sealed evidence that no one, not even the officer himself has seen, gets the attention of Murrow, who along with his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), decide to air a report on the situation on their CBS program “See It Now,” which prompts a visit from military brass and the special attention from McCarthy himself.
There is no need to tart this up with cheap dramatic contrivances, there’s plenty of the real thing to go around and not just from the attacks by the junior senator from Wisconsin, but also from the market forces of the media itself in the person of CBS President Frank Paley (Frank Langella), a cold, inscrutable presence with a silky growl whose non-interference with Murrow and Friendly never quite equals backing them. And it certainly doesn’t keep him from forcing Murrow to simultaneously do fluff programming such as interviewing Liberace. That frustration, coupled with a palpable tension about the repercussions of what they are doing, is played just under the surface, masked with a dry and pointed wit that keeps things afloat, such as Murrow turning down an invitation from Paley to a basketball game by explaining that he’s busy bringing down his network.
What is most striking about GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK is that the rhetoric McCarthy employed, heavy on the buzzwords such as terrorism and treason, light on proof have an uncannily contemporary ring to it. Actual clips of McCarthy are used, prompting one member of a preview audience, unaware that this wasn’t a recreation, to fault the actor playing McCarthy for being too hammy. No one, it appears, can do a better job of damning the red-baiting senator than he himself does.
The style is spare and to the point, just like Murrow’s prose. Events are necessarily condensed, but the effect is no less gripping for it. Strathairn’s intense, intelligent performance, also spare and to the point, keeps Murrow himself human, not a remote icon,
which would be another cheap dramatic device.
The film itself uses an almost dreamlike idiom of the swirling smoke of ubiquitous cigarettes, and an unnamed studio jazz singer who punctuates the film with songs tangentially commenting on the action. It’s a hyper reality that serves to telescope time, keeping the attention where it should be, on the events and on the toll it takes on those participating.
Not that the film eschews more explicit exposition, but handled delicately and realistically with two member of Murrow’s staff (Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), who have married against CBS policy, discussing the ramifications of what is going on, or the necessity that even Murrow succumbed to in signing the loyalty oaths CBS required of its employees.
This isn’t just a first-rate piece of literate filmmaking, it accomplishes what the best films should do. It holds up a mirror to its audience and allows it to look at itself and the world in a different way. After seeing GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, looking at the news, or commercials, for that matter, in the same old way becomes perfectly impossible.