WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Following up a story that an air force serviceman has been discharged, without any evidence, for his supposed links to the Communist Party, CBS presenter Edward R Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly find themselves in the sights of the notorious McCarthy hearings. As the news team pursue the story, the scrutineers are closely scrutinised themselves and increasingly put under pressure by their jittery bosses.
Clooney spends a lot of time behind the camera (on-screen and off, if that makes sense) in his second film as a director, a wistful yet faithful cigarette smoke-filled tribute to the work of respected WWII radio broadcaster turned pioneering television news journalist Edward R Murrow. And he creates a beautiful-looking film, perfectly evoking in black and white the look and feel of the 1950s. Murrow (David Strathairn) hears of the case of Lt. Milo Ridulovich, ejected from the air force on the basis of the contents of a sealed envelope whose contents nobody will admit to seeing.
As the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee spreads, Murrow uses the platform afforded to him by CBS show See It Now – a balance to interviewing celebrities such as Liberace on Person to Person – to gain attention to the machinations of McCarthy in trying to eliminate Communism from the face of America. His non-neutral position naturally makes the show’s sponsors, a down-to-earth aluminium business, and subsequently the station bosses, very nervous.
As Murrow’s broadcasts continue and McCarthy steps up his own accusations against the presenter before the Senator’s deceits are finally exposed, the film reflects the drama in the suicide of presenter Joe Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who has been savaged by the press for his stance on the issue; and the secret marriage of Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr) to Shirley (Patricia Clarkson), CBS banning marriage within the organisation at the time.
It is in the drama of the piece that the film doesn’t quite deliver. Good Night, and Good Luck is brilliantly staged and ferociously intelligent, speaking through the time period to make a plea for honest and uncensored television journalism in a talent show/game show age, as well as rejecting the politics of fear; it also brings the McCarthy hearings to the audience in an accessible format. But it lacks the dramatic edge that would have breathed life into the film, instead choosing to break up the technical exercise of putting on a TV show with the device of a singer (Dianne Reeves) in an adjoining studio singing a relevant jazz number.
The film’s not boring, and I would rather it tell a plain story plainly than invent events merely to thrill the audience, but I am unsure whether the material would not have been better suited to a documentary consisting entirely of footage, considering how much is used in the film as it is.
This is no criticism of the actors. David Strathairn puts in an earnest, unflinching turn as Murrow, Downey Jr is sombre but amusing, and Frank Langella as weary station boss William Paley is also very good. Clooney himself takes a relatively minor role as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, but is a competent part of a strong ensemble cast. There is, however, a great sense of these men (and a few women) being enclosed in a very small world: even when they venture outside of the studio, it is only to a bar to smoke and catch the reviews of their programme.
There’s an awful lot of love and attention in Clooney’s work, and the story of Edward R Murrow’s crusade against the McCarthy hearings obviously means a lot to him, on both a political level and a personal one, his father having been a television news presenter. Unfortunately, I don’t have much more to say about Good Night, and Good Luck as a film, when I feel I probably should.