Good Night, and Good Luck didn’t tell me much I didn’t know about the showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, but then I considered myself reasonably informed on the events in question. The real issue is whether those ten and twenty years younger than my forty-[mumble-something] will learn anything about why the current state of network television news is so pitiful and how far it has fallen.
The movie begins and ends four years after the McCarthy affair, with Murrow (David Straithairn) receiving an award for his contributions to television journalism. His remarks are pointed and direct and today sound like prophecy fulfilled when he speaks of the direction he sees television taking, not to inform the public but to distract them from uncomfortable realities.
These scenes bookend an almost documentary-like depiction of events surrounding the episode of See It Now that took on the junior senator from Wisconsin. Murrow is surrounded by a sea of faces familiar to students of the history of television journalism, such as his producer Fred Friendly (co-writer and director George Clooney), his director and future 60 Minutes honcho Don Hewitt (Grant Heslov) and CBS President William Paley (Frank Langella).
Clooney, the son of the television journalist, grew up in and around a news room similar to one seen here. He knows what the environment looks and sounds like, what TV newspeople talk like and this gives Good Night a rock-solid feeling of authenticity.
The whole cast is solid, but Straithairn disappears into the role of Murrow. Every mannerism and every vocal inflection is pitch-perfect. Close your eyes, and you might think it was the legendary news man playing himself.
The real masterstroke, however, is in the casting of the role of Senator McCarthy. Much like Murrow did, Clooney lets the senator speak for himself, letting him impeach himself with his own words. Not only does this save the expense of restaging the various senate hearings, it also frees the filmmakers from any charges that their portrayal of McCarthy was slanted or distorted. Believe it or not, there are still a few people in this world who think he was a great patriot who got a raw deal.
It is difficult to underestimate the changes in television news between Murrow’s time and our own. It is doubly ironic that the same CBS network that gave rise to this titan of electronic journalism could find itself tripped up by something like the Memo-gate scandal from the last election. How the mighty have truly fallen.
Video Release Update 3/17/2006
As I alluded to in the main review, it’s a bit of a fashion among some conservatives to attempt to rehabilitate the image of Senator Joseph McCarthy, to portray him as a misunderstood patriot brought low by the left wing media elite. To them, the existence of KGB files that confirm the not unsurprising fact that, yes, there were actually communists in America during the fifties somehow vindicates the Senator’s methods.
Speaking as someone who does, in fact, list to political starboard, this is as bad for conservatism as it is for history. Even if every target of McCarthy’s committee was as guilty as sin, that doesn’t mean his tactics of slander and innuendo were valid investigative techniques. The junior senator from Wisconsin was a crass opportunist who seized upon the country’s worst fears and used them for his own aggrandizement.
Conservatives cannot let themselves be so blinded by partisanship and ideology that they make excuses for the likes of Joe McCarthy.
Now that’s off my chest, back to the movie.
I still think highly of Good Night, And Good Luck, with its crisp documentary style and lovely black-and-white cinematography. I do, however, believe that the subplot involving Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), who secretly violated the CBS policy against married co-workers, was an unnecessary diversion that added very little. It helps that they were both likeable characters, but their story is hardly essential to the clash between Murrow and McCarthy.
I also enjoyed the film’s sense of wry irony, showing Edward R. Murrow, who died of lung cancer, being sponsored by Kent cigarettes. Also, older audiences must have gotten a chuckle out of Murrow asking Liberace if he would ever get married. Writer/Director George Clooney’s eye for such details served this picture well.
I'm a little busy bringing down the network tonight, Bill.