George Clooney’s new docudrama “Good Night, and Good Luck” plays it strictly by the book, delivering a stand-up film with no surprises. Despite a lack of ingenuity, “Good Night” should be admired for refusing to become a tried and true Hollywood propaganda piece. Instead of sensationalizing history, it calmly moves through its paces, educating its viewers in dulcet black and white.
Set in the CBS newsroom of 1953, the film intricately details broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s attempt to bring down Sen. Joseph McCarthy through his program “See it Now.” This is not exactly the stuff of box office success, but Clooney manages to make it compelling through the efforts of a fabulous cast.
The film fixates on two episodes of Murrow’s television program. At the height of the McCarthy Communist hearings, Murrow (David Strathairn) proposes a piece to his newsroom about Milo Radulovich, who had been discharged from the air force when his father and sister were accused of being Communists. After some coaxing, his co-producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) decides that the charge is so clearly fallacious that they can safely do the piece with little chance of attack. Despite grumbles from CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella), both Friendly and Murrow produce the program.
After a positive response from critics and the public, Murrow decides to do a show that exposes McCarthy, standing up to the tyrant despite what that could mean for his career.
Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson also make an extended appearance as Shirley and Joe Wershba, husband and wife reporters working at CBS whose marriage conflicts with corporate policy. It isn’t quite clear how they fit within the overall structure of the film, except that historically they were part of Murrow’s team. Their subplot seems tacked on, never really bearing any relevance to the main plot.
Clooney has a penchant for hyping the few epic events that do happen over the course of “Good Night,” ironically dulling their impact. The second-act suicide of anchorman Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), an accused Commie sympathizer, is foreshadowed from the film’s first moments. This is unfortunate, as Don, a strange bloom against the swank stylish folks at CBS, is the odd one out. Ray Wise, of “Twin Peaks” noir, gets him exactly right — Don feels the most human of the group.
Trying to up the emotional payload, Clooney showcases his actors in static tableau, frequently staring off into the distance. Although this is a visual gimmick to convey emotion, here it passes as an attempt to get at the complex struggle and stress weighing on the crew at CBS. The more natural scenes of office intrigue and terse conversation do a better job, really defining the atmosphere of the newsroom and the people embodying it.
The star of this film is exactly where he should be, in the role of Edward R. himself. David Strathairn, with his glowing eyes and puckered mouth, exudes an aura that is equal parts confidence and terror. Smoking like a chimney, Murrow leads his newsroom right into the storm. The responsibility of getting them safely through seems to weigh down even the skin on his face.
Several other well-orchestrated performances abound. Jeff Daniels loses his “Squid and the Whale” scruff to join the cast in a bit part. Alex Borstein (Ms. Swan from “Mad TV”) shows her serious acting skills as a high-powered secretary. And the director himself, George Clooney, sits sphinx-like behind a pair of Friendly’s highly-reflective, silver-rimmed glasses and watches it all. Just like Murrow, he looks nervous.
He need not be. Despite using well-worn tricks, “Good Night” makes a stand for integrity and truth, both of which are bigger than the film itself. It’s really a treat to watch such honorable men struggle to make a broadcast news program with a conscience.
As the film’s centerpiece, Clooney airs McCarthy’s original rebuttal to Murrow. The man looks out at us — at the United States — and consciously dispenses lies. By making this film now, Clooney has cleverly released his own editorial. And despite its miniscule budget, “Good Night” is crafted in the revolutionary spirit of Edward R. Murrow, which is something that any American can salute.