It's only fitting that a film about the end of an era a clash of the titans that brought down one man, cut short the legendary television career of another and forever changed the way we look at journalism be named after the famous signoff of the man who stood up and made it happen. George Clooney's 'Good Night, and Good Luck' chronicles a major turning point in both journalism and the history of our nation, when celebrated newsman Edward R. Murrow brought investigative journalism to television and using his popularity to speak truth to power at a time when most Americans were afraid to even open their mouths.
Knowing the potential repercussions, Murrow used his 'See It Now' news program to expose Sen. Joseph McCarthy's scurrilous accusations and scare tactics, ultimately leading to the junior Senator's censure and putting an end to the reign of paranoia he'd created. With so many reasons to admire Murrow, the film could have simply been a tribute to one of journalism's finest, but Clooney who's family and news-anchor father cite Murrow as an influential hero is careful to avoid falling into mere idolatry, though occasionally at the expense of a more rounded picture of Murrow. Instead, 'Good Night, and Good Luck' uses a cinema verite style that blends more smoothly than expected, thanks to Robert Elswit's cinematography archival footage with the black and white film Clooney shot to tell the story of a moment in history and the people who made it happen, fleshing out ideas about the responsibility of power, integrity, truth and the television's potential to inspire or debase.
Though book ended by Murrow's (David Strathairn) 1958 address at a radio and television news directors' conference itself a lecture on the potential and subsequent responsibility of the media the film's main focus is the battle between Murrow and McCarthy. When Navy pilot Milo Radulovich is declared guilty without a trial based on sealed charges and dishonorably discharged, Murrow decides that McCarthy's boundless bullying has gone too far. With the support of CBS boss William Paley (an appropriately imposing Frank Langella), producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) and his dedicated news team, Murrow goes ahead with the Radulovich feature, sparking the expected accusatory reaction from McCarthy. Knowing that allegations aren't proof, and McCarthy has none of the latter, Murrow offers McCarthy a chance to tell his side of the story on Murrow's show, an opportunity the Senator promptly uses to shoot himself in the foot, setting in motion the events that ultimately end his witch hunt.
Rather than trying to craft a fictional and thus inherently biased version of McCarthy, Clooney uses archival footage to let the Senator speak for himself. Strathairn provides the brooding face and speaks with the authoritative gravity of Murrow, but most of the words are straight out of history. Murrow's editorials on the McCarthy situation were arguably more articulate and inspiring than anything to come out of a news anchor's mouth since, and Clooney and co-writer/producer/star Grant Heslov wisely chose to remain true to them.
Clooney's first film, 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' was a fun piece of filmmaking that owed much to the directors he learned from Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers, among others but he has a lot more to say with 'Good Night, and Good Luck,' and this time around there's more thought behind his direction than just aesthetic concerns. A meticulous reconstruction of the 'See It Now' set allows him to capture an authentic looking behind the scenes portrait of the hustle and bustle of the CBS newsroom and the people who ran it. Thanks to the archival footage, Murrow's interviews are recreated with their actual subjects including a priceless chat with Liberachi that provides a moment of comic relief as if they were happening live. By sticking mainly to the newsroom and nearby bar Clooney perfectly preserves the 1950s look, and the cramped environment helps keep the tension high.
Though the film drags at a few points, the talented ensemble cast is there to pick up the slack, and Strathairn's delivery of Murrow's editorials is captivating. At a time when investigative journalism was still an emerging concept, Murrow and his team risked their careers to hold a monster accountable because they knew it had to be done. It's a lesson that's as relevant today as it was during Murrow's time, and just as important. After Murrow left 'See It Now,' he said that if television doesn't live up to its potential to inform and inspire, it's nothing more than a box full of tubes and wires one has to appreciate a film that aspires to live up to those words.