Good Night, and Good Luck
Directed by George Clooney | Warner | 90 minutes
Starring David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Tate Donovan, Ray Wise, Frank Langella

Broadway has been dying since the 1920s and the rise of the movies. And the movies have been dying since the 1940s and the rise of television. Each recent year seems to get worse, as the movies drift or plunge into increased sensationalism and comic book/video game plots and characters. Then just as one is about to give up on the whole enterprise and tend one’s garden or spend more time birding, along comes an intelligent, adult movie, or should I say movie for adults. Such is Good Night, and Good Luck, a film directed and written by the actor George Clooney, which, among other things, is about the rise of television. It presents a slice in the life of Edward R. Murrow, famed TV journalist, framing his dispute with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid-50s by beginning and ending with an award ceremony for Murrow held in 1958.

Through his radio reporting via radio about the Battle of Britain in World War II, and then by his early television shows, such as “Person to Person,” Murrow became, and still is, the model that all subsequent “anchor men” strive to imitate. Few if any have matched the original, whose eloquence, objectivity, intelligence, and gravitas keep him elevated above his successors. In the film, David Straithairn, formerly a talented supporting actor, plays Murrow with uncanny accuracy. And he in turn is supported admirably by Clooney as Murrow’s long time partner Fred Friendly, and by Frank Langella, as William Paley, chairman of CBS. The film is shot entirely in a grainy black and white, which gives it an authentic period look and which matches the numerous documentary newsreel and TV clips of the actual events with which the film is concerned.

Hollywood has consistently treated Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism as an unmitigated evil, not without reason. Yet films such as The Front (1976) and Guilty by Suspicion (1991) leave the audience with the notion that the hysteria generated by McCarthy was all an unjust witch-hunt and that the Left, if there was such a thing, was entirely innocent. Lives were ruined, friendships destroyed, the quality of Hollywood lowered, and all over what? – being anti-Fascist or pro-union? Such is Hollywood’s and today’s received opinion. So much so that anyone, such as Elia Kazan, who “named names” is regarded not as a patriot who hated the lies and deceptions and double think of the Left, but as a Quisling and coward, little more than a Nazi collaborator. History tells a somewhat different story. Not only that Stalin was just as evil as Hitler and that Communism blighted every country which it controlled, that Communist moles and spies had infiltrated the US government, Alger Hiss being the most notorious, and that atomic secrets were stolen from Los Alamos, but also that John Howard Lawson, leader of the Hollywood Ten (all perceived as martyrs) was a KGB agent and that Hollywood money was used to finance Soviet espionage. Whittaker Chambers, the Time editor and former Soviet courier who exposed Hiss, warned the young William Buckley at the outset of his career that McCarthy, through his excessive claims, smear tactics, and bullying, would discredit anti-communism. And so it has proven.

Happily, Good Night, and Good Luck (the phrase was Murrow’s sign-off signature) presents a more complicated view of this era. Of course Murrow is all-integrity and all-heroic in facing up to McCarthy, in risking his career in exposing un-American tactics, and in helping to bring down this destructive demagogue. But the film also shows clips of Senator McClellan opposing McCarthy, as well as an enraged President Eisenhower denouncing McCarthy and his methods. This is not your typical left-wing paranoid movie, such as The Constant Gardener (2005), where the corruption goes all the way to the top. It also presents William Paley (Langella) as somewhat sympathetic. When one of Murrow’s programs defending a blacklisted Air Force officer brings on investigations and government protests, Paley backs Murrow. He also, again reluctantly, allows Murrow to attack McCarthy directly, but when CBS loses its Alcoa sponsor and revenues decline as controversies heighten, he demotes Murrow and eases him out of his job. Paley, like others, was not a villain, just all too human. As the film tells us, McCarthy after being censured, remained in the Senate, but Murrow and Friendly must look for new jobs.

These subtle shifts in the conventional treatment of McCarthyism occur because this film is not merely trying to justify the Left. Murrow was never a fellow traveller or socialist, just a decent, liberal man. The film does attack McCarthy head on; it allows the Senator to speak for and damn himself, and it depicts a McCarthy victim in Don Hollenbeck, a commentator with a left-wing past who committed suicide. But the film has a few other agendas and sub-texts. For one, it warns against smoking and even pokes some fun at Murrow, the chain smoker, who endorsed Kent cigarettes. We see the actual commercial. Then too it hits out at male chauvinism. Patricia Clarkson, playing Shirley Wershba, a Murrow staffer, is sent by the men on the staff out to buy a newspaper, automatically, just as she would be the one, like the other women at CBS, to get the coffee for the guys. She is married, secretly, to Robert Downey, Jr. also a staff member, but the two of them must pretend they are not married, as CBS, in those pre-feminist days, had a policy against hiring husbands and wives. And when the staff must be cut, they, whose marriage after all was not a well-kept secret, are the first asked to leave.

At the end of the film, as the climax to the tribute, Murrow himself delivers a speech, historically recreated, which elucidates what the entire film has been about. It’s not just about how un-American McCarthy was, but how television must maintain its independence and integrity, how it risks decline if it gives into mere entertainment and the wishes of sponsors. So the film which relishes the recreating of the early days of television news reporting, is not so much about the past as it is a warning to the present to try to keep to the standards of Murrow. Provide analysis, not news bytes; raise the audience up, don’t lower them; be objective, not partisan, but don’t shy away from controversy. Only then will television prove worthy of its promise. Not a bad lesson for Hollywood, as well as from it.

Good Night, and Good Luck is not a great movie, just a good one. Like Star Wars, which was a TV show about watching TV, namely, a group of actors in pajamas sitting in easy chairs around the set, Good Night, and Good Luck imitates the early TV that is its subject. It too consists primarily of one studio location and talking heads. Despite the camera’s loving exploration of their faces, the characters remain constant and lack any dramatic development, as though we are to know who they are and the roles that they played. It seems like an hour show, and even that is broken up, in the manner of commercials, by Diana Reeves singing contemporary songs, each of them having some point to make about the matter of the movie, such as “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” a Cole Porter melody from The Broadway Melody of 1940, but here referring not to George Murphy and Fred Astaire watching Eleanor Powell but to big brother government putting Murrow under surveillance. I suspect the film will appeal primarily to an older generation who lived through this period, but certainly the film’s documentary footage will bring the era alive to younger viewers. Despite the film’s limitations – more after all might have proven less – George Clooney is to be congratulated for making a PG movie about an important subject. It is well worth seeing.

William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.