Are you now, or have you ever been, a journalist?
That’s what Good Night, and Good Luck. feels like, a smooth, sardonic smack in the face of today’s so-called newspeople, the cinematic equivalent of a withering glare and a disdainful roll of the eyes. Oh, this is an angry movie, calm and collected on the surface and seethed with reeled-in rage underneath. Yeah, it’s about Edward R. Murrow and how he took on McCarthy’s insanity, but what it’s really about is how we need a Murrow now and is there no one, not one supposed journalist, with the balls to take up Murrow’s mantle of integrity and honesty and fearlessness?
(Yes, as a matter of fact there is a period at the end of the film’s title. And you know what? This flick is so damn perfect that I’ve got no problem forgiving that kind of nonsense.)
What’s brilliant about Good Night isn’t that it ends up sorta serving the very purpose it’s angry that no one else is serving, or that it agrees with my own politics, but that it’s so damn cool. For all its anger, there’s no ranting and raving, no speechifying, no histrionics or grandiose dramatics. It’s like, Look, this is what really happened, and the facts don’t need any embellishments or frills to highlight how damn relevant they are to what’s going on today. The only overt commentary comes in the bits that bookend the film, in which Murrow, in a speech to a 1958 gathering of network execs, condemns the deplorable state of TV and wonders how America 50 years later will look back at the time, as to suggest that things would be so much better in the futuristic 21st century and they all should be ashamed of themselves in the unenlightened 1950s. That’s the film’s cool, sardonic humor: the irony in the idea that our TV today should be smarter and more sophisticated, when of course the only thing we’ve done “better” is expand the depths of inanity to which mass entertainment can descend.
Most of the film takes place over the few weeks in 1953 during which Murrow, who was hosting his own weekly news program on CBS, decided finally to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his looney campaign against a paranoid Communist conspiracy he was convinced was undermining American democracy. A thoroughly cowed national press was refusing to call him on his idiocy, because to criticize the senator or his methods was to court accusations of treason. Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, finally had enough.
It’s almost like jazz, the loose, improvised feeling of the newsroom debates, as Murrow’s team and network execs navigate the sharp shoals of just doing what they’re supposed to be doing: speaking truth to power. (Murrow’s colleagues include the secretly married Joe [Robert Downey Jr.: Gothika, Wonder Boys] and Shirley Wershba [Patricia Clarkson: Miracle, Dogville], who are violating corporate policy as spouses working alongside each other, a different kind of fear in a different autocratic environment, but a telling parallel both to McCarthy’s reign of terror and CBS’s and Murrow’s daring to challenge him.] There’s a lean spareness to how director George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), who also appears as Friendly and cowrote the film with Grant Heslov, doesn’t let anything superfluous clutter up the film and distract from what is a very simple story — as, perhaps, a subtle and unspoken censure about personality-driven “news,” he doesn’t let any personal-life stuff about Murrow (a fabulous David Strathairn: Twisted, Harrison’s Flowers) intrude. And though he could have really highlighted Murrow’s oh-so-pertinent on-air commentaries — the “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” the “We must not confuse accusation with proof,” the “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home” — he just lets them slip by, sly little think bombs that drift through the film like the ever-present cigarette smoke curling up through the creamy black-and-white stock Clooney uses to match up his film with the actual footage of McCarthy’s tirade.
This isn’t just a big honking smack in the face of today’s corporate media, and a plea for some-damn-one to wake up and act like a real damn journalist. It’s also a big honking smack in the face of today’s media audience, a reminder that we should care a helluva lot more than we do, as a nation, about knowing what’s really going on. It’s exactly what we need right now, and it’s absolutely thrilling, cinematically and intellectually and even entertainingly.