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By Gustavo Arellano
Five minutes into George Clooney's GoodNight, and Good Luck, I was asking myself whether cool and jazzy was the way to go with one of the great political fisticuffs of 20th-century America. There were fundamental civil rights riding on Edward R. Murrow's public fight with Joseph McCarthy, and that alone seems to beg for a grand moral drama. Good Night, and Good Luck is another animal altogether, a small ensemble piece that plays like a night out in a ritzy Manhattan supper club. Hang in, though, and there are riches in the works: a wicked character study of Murrow, who's played by David Strathairn in Brylcreem and exquisitely tailored pinstripes; and a sexy homage to the pleasures of working alongside a team of smart-ass reporters making common cause.
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David Strathairn Shot in sleek black-and-white and laced with silky riffs from singer Dianne Reeves, Good Night, and Good Luck opens, as it closes, at the 1958 convention of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, with Murrow delivering a keynote speech in which he unexpectedly tears into not the anti-communist witch-hunts over which he has obsessed for five years on his muckraking television news show See It Now, but rather the threats of corporate sponsorship to freedom of speech. Then the action backs up to 1953, with Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (an amusingly porked-out Clooney, in thick black glasses) mulling an episode of See It Now devoted to investigating McCarthy's possible behind-the-scenes involvement in the expulsion of an Army Air Corps reservist on the grounds that his Yugoslavian father and sister subscribed to communist newspapers. It seems perverse to trap the ensuing dirty struggle between Murrow and McCarthy—who tried to paint Murrow as a socialist and a commie sympathizer, though he was neither—in the politely aestheticized bubble of a cramped CBS newsroom, often with the sound turned off at moments of high drama. Yet somehow the gambit works, thanks to a glamorously urbane ensemble featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as Joe and Shirley Wershba, who had to keep their marriage secret because it violated the network's house rules; a superbly wry Frank Langella as CBS president William Paley; Jeff Daniels as Paley's bloodless number two, Sig Mickelson; and Ray Wise as the terminally stressed anchorman Don Hollenbeck. There's a lovely, improvised lilt to their interactions (the briskly funny screenplay is by Clooney and Grant Heslov, who also produced), a controlled frenzy that takes you back to the days when people actually had fun at work, even in a large corporation.
As for Strathairn, he has his work cut out playing opposite footage of the real McCarthy. (Clooney's use of archival footage here seems a fussy and pointless stylistic tic. I can think of several actorly bully boys—Michael Madsen, say, or Billy Bob Thornton, or even Tom Sizemore—who would have done the junior senator from Wisconsin proud.) But this most inward of actors bears up beautifully as the famously laconic Murrow, unsmiling and austere like the son of Quaker abolitionists that he was. Gazing snootily down his long parson's nose, his severe mouth the only muscle moving in that long face, Strathairn works up a Bogartian white heat, and watching him, you want to thank all known deities that Murrow was in the right camp. Consciously or not, Good Night, and Good Luck deftly implies that for all the differences between Murrow and McCarthy, they had in common the same unbending nature and willingness to burn all bridges, their careers included, in the service of their beliefs. Like McCarthy, Murrow is an absolutist, and it takes Paley—a political animal to his core, though hardly without scruples—to remind the journalist that everyone, even Edward R. Murrow, censors himself. The comparison can only be pushed so far. Murrow had irony, decency and an incisive intellect on his side, and, for all the lip service he had to pay CBS by interviewing celebrities (there's a very funny exchange between a lethargic, eye-rolling Murrow and a chipper Liberace), he refused to bend any more to the dictates of big business than to McCarthy's threats. Clooney has said that he made Good Night, and Good Luck partly to educate the young, and it's clear he means to draw comparisons between the climate of fear created by McCarthy and HUAC and the Bush administration's messing with civil rights. I'm not convinced—like many movies reaching for lessons from history, Good Night, and Good Luck tends to conflate past apples with present oranges. But there's no doubt that the movie gives Murrow his due as one of broadcast journalism's last great figures. He was also one of its last colorful characters—heroic, self-destructive, somewhat tragic—and not even Peter Jennings, who like his hero smoked his way to an early grave, came close. Of the scintillating media types with whom Murrow surrounded himself, only Don Hewitt (played in the movie by Heslov) survived over the long haul as the producer of 60 Minutes, that wan stepchild of See It Now. Murrow was a man of his time, and if you think times haven't changed much, try imagining what would happen if he were to show up today at a White House press conference with his usual armory of awkward questions. He'd be spun, which I'm sure this great gent would regard as a fate worse than being smeared.
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK WAS DIRECTED BY GEORGE CLOONEY; WRITTEN BY CLOONEY AND GRANT HESLOV; PRODUCED BY HESLOV. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.
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