Good Night, & Good Luck
directed by George Clooney
(Warner, 2005)

From the spiraling smoke of on-air cigarettes to eloquence from Eisenhower and smooth jazz interludes by Dianne Reeves, Good Night, & Good Luck tugs us back into the mid-1950s world of Commies, Red scares and the sometimes painful birth of television journalism.

It's a great ride.

For those of us in the age of TiVo, high-definition television, 200-plus channels, DVDs, instant replay, blogs and yelping cable commentators, it's hard to wrap our minds -- even if we were actually alive then and watching television -- around an era in which television reporters were expected to cultivate an aura of gravitas and in which few really yet understood the full import of newsmaking and news reporting in this new medium.

Edward R. Murrow may have been one of them -- and Sen. Joseph McCarthy may have been one of the politicians who realized the impact television could have on his career, too. Fate brought them together during a few-month span in 1954, when Murrow's convictions ran into McCarthy's hearings.

But Good Night, & Good Luck is less about those hearings and more about the conflicts of Murrow, CBS, William S. Paley (who began and ran CBS television and radio), advertisers and the journalism team in covering the hearings, in finding a balance between news and fluff, in defining or ignoring journalistic boundaries. There was no roadmap, and very little precedent, for the head-on confrontation between televised news -- a beast unto itself -- and politics.

Maybe it's just the journalism junkie in me, but this is the part of Good Night, & Good Luck that grabbed me. Because these days, we can find some outlet of journalism, sometimes loosely defined, that fits our particular world view. These days, if we were McCarthyites, we'd never have to hear Murrow. And if we were appalled by McCarthy, there'd be plenty of news sources, again sometimes loosely defined, to reinforce our views.

But to have Murrow (here played with his usual mastery of understatement by David Strathairn), the pre-eminent television reporter who already was well-known for his wartime broadcasts from London, and McCarthy in what amounted to a televised career death match, is fascinating stuff.

Director George Clooney is an outspoken liberal, sure. But the issues he raises here shouldn't be the province of one political persuasion or another.

Clooney co-wrote Good Night with Grant Heslov, plays Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer, and lends his lightness to Murrow's more tightly wound persona.

Good Night covers only a few months, and is insular in its scope, too, in that just about everything happens within the offices of CBS and on its newscasts. But it recreates that world from a more "innocent" time with such seeming fidelity -- filming totally in black and white, with great cinematography by Robert Elswit, is only a small part of it, but it's crucial -- that it manages to comment on other aspects of life at the same time.

For example, there are two CBS News employees who are married to each other -- but they tell no one because it is against company policy.

Nominated for six Oscars, it boasts a series of stellar performances by the great Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels -- not to mention archival footage of the junior senator from Wisconsin himself.

And any attempt to draw parallels between the political climate of the mid-1950s and today? Well, it's hard to believe Clooney would have any problem with that at all. Only Murrow seems to be missing now.

by Jen Kopf
22 April 2006

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