Director: George Clooney
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language
Back in 1994, when a flashy medical soap called ER took television by storm, who could’ve guessed that resident man-meat George Clooney would eventually evolve into one of the more interesting filmmakers in Hollywood? Just three years after leaving the smash series, Clooney made his directorial debut with 2002’s criminally overlooked Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a taut, inventive little thriller based on the fantastic delusions of legendary game show host Chuck Barris.
Now, with Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney returns to the milieu of vintage television, and this time he’s got something more serious on his mind – but don’t let that scare you off. Clooney may be known for his political activism, but his priorities are in order here, and he’s crafted a highly entertaining film that wastes not a moment on ponderous pontificating.
David Strathairn stars as Edward R. Murrow, the venerable CBS newsman who, along with producer Fred Friendly, waged a dangerous polemic against Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose accusations of pinko sympathy within the U.S. government were reaching a fever pitch. History reassures us that McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate, and his foes largely escaped with their reputations intact, but at the height of the “Red Scare,” the political atmosphere was charged with paranoia, and no public or private figure was beyond McCarthy’s ambitious reach.
The film is presented in black and white, befitting a story that earnestly and endearingly paints its characters the same way. There is one brief scene where a member of Murrow’s staff quietly wonders if McCarthy may be right, but the moment feels obligatory. We’re not meant to wonder where the truth lies; this is the Star Wars of political journalism tales, with virtuous heroes and black-hatted bad guys. Nevermind that McCarthy was partially vindicated when the VENONA transcripts were declassified, it was the abuse of power and disregard for personal liberty that Murrow could not abide, and for that conviction Clooney sees Murrow as a hero. There is a naivete to this kind of storytelling, yes. But every once in a while we need a movie like this to remind us that there are still some ideals worth fighting for, quaint though they may seem.
All this is told with refreshing economy. The script, written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is unconcerned with Murrow’s private life, and by foregoing any manufactured personal drama, Clooney keeps the pace brisk and pulls the whole thing together in less than 90 minutes. The dialogue is delicious; sharp and funny without resorting to the insufferable, strutting, self-conscious repartee that has infected so many television dramas in recent years.
Strathairn, of course, has received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Murrow, and Clooney brings his effortless affability to the role of Fred Friendly. Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels and Robert Downey, Jr. make strong impressions in small roles, and Ray Wise, who memorably creeped out Twin Peaks fans 13 years ago, turns in a particularly poignant performance as persecuted reporter Don Hollenbeck.
With Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney confirms that once his white-hot celebrity status fades, he can look forward to a significant career behind the camera.