Good Night, And Good Luck is by no means the last word on either Edward R. Murrow or Joseph McCarthy, nor is it an exhaustive account of a particularly hysterical era of anti-Communism in our nation’s past. Historians will not be sated, biographers will be left wanting, and those desiring a full, investigative probe into the heart and soul of American journalism will raise the expected objections. But as a film should be judged for its intent and not unfulfilled expectations that were never promised to begin with, George Clooney’s tightly wound, spirited effort becomes exactly what it set out to be: a small sliver of time — shameful, terrifying, and burdened by the mere fate of the nation itself — as an unabashed mirror to the present, with only the names and dates altered. Clooney does little to disguise the fact that at bottom, this is a cannon blast of self-righteous fury aimed squarely at the same villains and scoundrels who inhaled the fumes of McCarthy, and are now riding on different, but no less despicable, high horses. For the innuendo, suspicion, illegality, and fear-mongering that defined that not-so-distant era now permeate our own, although it really never went away. Communists have become terrorists, fellow travelers are now disguised as America-haters, and those accused of slanting the news for their own purposes still reside at the most unholy of institutions, yes, the New York Times. Clooney’s record is a bridge to the here and now.
Of course this film is unfair, slanted, and incomplete. Of course Clooney wears his liberalism like a badge of honor, defiantly daring the opposition to challenge his beaming pride. Of course we rarely depart the newsroom itself, leaving voices of dissent shivering in the dark. And of course, one’s position on both McCarthy’s role in history and the elevation of civil liberties above even the golden halo of “national security”, will likely affect one’s ultimate enjoyment. In fact, this film does more than preach to the choir; it practically compels the viewer, under penalty of shame, to subscribe to its ultimate truth. To deny the bias would be frightfully dishonest, but more than that, it would be wholly unnecessary, for Clooney has no secret agenda that isn’t declared with every frame. And yet, the film works as a unique vision of fearlessness in our complacent times; a bold strike for journalistic integrity in an age of corporate-inspired timidity, an old-fashioned salute to a sainted man’s lonely crusade, and a much-deserved lecture about the self-imposed silence of the presumed guardians of our liberty. If, on the other hand, the alleged threats posed by Communists outweighed the Constitutional guarantees of free speech and association, then this is not a film for you. What it ultimately has to say still affects your life whether or not you acknowledge its importance, but you will not see this as an enlightening chronicle. Liberals will leave even more committed, while conservatives will still hate George Clooney per the instructions of Bill O’Reilly.
It is important to dispense with the obvious slant of Good Night, And Good Luck because too much time could be wasted trying to defend and explain what remains painfully obvious from the start. Needless to say, because this is an extremely truncated examination (93 brisk minutes), overall characterization suffers, the story remains on a single arc, and any larger context is lacking. The film assumes a great degree of intelligence and understanding on the part of the viewer — which is refreshing in this day of overwrought simplicities — but it’s too easy to hope for diversions. This is Murrow’s tale, as he is the voice of studied reason throughout, but there’s nothing more of the man to round out the picture. He is defiant, calm, earnest, and supremely professional (as well as one hell of a smoker), but outside of a brief question involving his family, we never see Murrow unbuttoned and unburdened. Clooney wants us to see this man as the best of what the media has offered — which any thinking person understands without the film’s attempt at persuasion — without the quirks and eccentricities that a personal life inevitably brings to light. Increasingly, I appreciate this direction of the historical portrait, for no film could ever hope to compete with the written word in terms of a man’s life. The sooner we stop looking to the screen to provide all the nuance of existence (with all the required patience only a thick tome can provide), the better prepared the audience will be to examine only what they have in front of them.
And so we inhabit the smoke-filled offices and studios of CBS, meeting Murrow (David Strathairn), William Paley (Frank Langella), Fred Friendly (George Clooney), and Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), all embroiled in controversy and potential scandal. The instinct for the facts, as expected, must be balanced with the demands of corporate sponsorship and the potential blowback from McCarthy, the Justice Department, and even the IRS. Clooney reveres Murrow and his dedicated service to his country, but provides necessary shading when we see the newsman interview dippy celebrities like Liberace in order to allow for more hard-edged (and less popular) investigative pieces. And for all of Murrow’s nobility, we see that far from defending Communism or an even less acceptable form of patriotism (he is quick to point out that he has never entertained the ideology of the far left), he is first and foremost concerned with McCarthy’s tactics. It’s his form of, “I may hate what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” In fact, Murrow’s personal politics are left entirely unexplored, which is how it should be given that what he thinks is irrelevant to the larger matter at hand. McCarthy bullied mere suspects to such an extent that the nation became consumed by loyalty oaths, book bans, and blacklists. McCarthy himself might not have forced desperate citizens to sign away their integrity, but his prominence legitimized a larger fight that had many, often anonymous foot soldiers. And Tailgunner Joe’s destruction and pathetic demise, while crucial in some respects, hardly killed the inclination to set American against American in a pissing contest of patriotic bluster. Fear, paranoia, and the “fight for freedom” never went away (see here) — or even lost its strength — but the film’s attachment to an ever-vigilant camp of opposition never dates or ceases to be relevant.
Stylistically, despite an occasional (and unnecessary) turn to the lives of supporting characters (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a married couple forced to hide their situation — CBS won’t hire both a husband and wife), this is one of the more impressive efforts of the year. The opening credits — jazzy, loose, and intoxicating — set a sumptuous tone that is repeated each and every time we return to the “bridges” of vocalist Dianne Reeves. Her songs don’t necessarily comment on the action, but they give the film a feeling of “long ago,” that might help further the idea that what Clooney is really saying is that journalism once had the will for the good fight, but no longer aspires to greatness. The black and white photography remains stunning throughout, and whenever we’re in the midst of newsroom chaos, it feels like the best of Robert Altman. The set is filmed much like a holy shrine, for here great work occurred, despite the odds. Given this reverence, it seems even more logical that we leave private homes unexplored, and the only shots of the Senate chamber remain actual archival film. Even McCarthy himself remains a figure of the newsreels, which is to Clooney’s credit. Had an actor portrayed the Senator, he would have been overly cartoonish and unreal (and likely hamming it up for an Oscar), when we know in any battle worth having, it is best to let the enemy hang himself. McCarthy — sweaty, wild-eyed, and always looking like he slept on the couch without taking off his suit — exploded in a bloated blaze of hubris, and it’s never a mystery how it all came about. That’s not to understate the role of good men like Murrow, although even he would admit that though he might have simply pushed him over, someone with much to lose had to first reach out and risk an arm.