Shot in a black-and-white palette of cigarette smoke, hair tonic, dark suits and pale button-down shirts, Good Night, and Good Luck plunges into a half-forgotten world in which television was new, the Cold War was at its peak, and the surgeon general's report on the dangers of tobacco was still a decade in the future. Though it is a meticulously detailed reconstruction of an era, the film, directed by George Clooney from a script he wrote with Grant Heslov, is concerned with more than nostalgia.
Burnishing the legend of Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman who in the 1940s and 1950s established a standard of journalistic integrity his profession has scrambled to live up to ever since, Good Night, and Good Luck is a passionate, thoughtful essay on power, truth-telling and responsibility. The title evokes Murrow's trademark sign-off, and I can best sum up my own response by recalling the name of his flagship program: See it now.
And be prepared to pay attention. Good Night, and Good Luck is not the kind of historical picture that dumbs down its material, or walks you carefully through events that may be unfamiliar. Instead, it unfolds, cinema-verite style, in the fast, sometimes frantic present tense, following Murrow and his colleagues as they deal with the petty annoyances and larger anxieties of news gathering at a moment of political turmoil. The story flashes back from a famous, cautionary speech that Murrow gave at an industry convention in 1958 to one of the most notable episodes in his career -- his war of words and images with former US senator Joseph McCarthy.
While David Strathairn plays Murrow with sly eloquence and dark wit, Clooney allows the junior senator from Wisconsin to play himself (thanks to surviving video clips of his hearings and public appearances), a jolt of documentary truth that highlights some of the movie's themes. Television, it suggests, can be both a potent vehicle for demagoguery and a weapon in the fight against it.
Good Night, and Good Luck
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: David Strathairn (Edward R. Murrow), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), Robert Downey Jr. (Joe Wershba), Frank Langella (William Paley), Grant Heslov (Don Hewitt)
Running time: 90 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Clooney, who plays Murrow's producer and partner, Fred Friendly, has clearly thought long and hard about the peculiar, ambiguous nature of the medium. It is a subject that comes naturally to him: his father, Nick, was for many years a local television newscaster in Cincinnati, and the younger Clooney's own star first rose on the small screen. Like Good Night, and Good Luck, his first film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), used the biography of a television personality (Chuck Barris of The Gong Show) as a way of exploring the medium's capacity to show the truth, and also to distort and obscure it.
Indeed, these two movies can almost be seen as companion pieces. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind suggests that a man with a hard time telling truth from fiction can find a natural home on the tube, while Good Night, and Good Luck demonstrates that a furiously honest, ruthlessly rational person may find it less comfortable. Murrow, as conceived by the filmmakers and incarnated by Strathairn, is a man of strong ideals and few illusions. He knows that McCarthy will smear him (and offers the senator airtime to do so), and that sponsors and government officials will pressure his boss, William Paley (Frank Langella), to rein him in.
He is aware that his reports are part of a large, capitalist enterprise, and makes some necessary concessions. In addition to his investigative reports -- and, in effect, to pay for them -- Murrow conducts celebrity interviews, including one with Liberace, which Clooney has lovingly and mischievously rescued from the archives.