Good Night, and Good Luck

It’s sad to think that Edward R. Murrow is almost a footnote in today’s world. Half a century ago, he was more than just the most famous and respected journalist in this new medium called television. His radio broadcasts from the front lines during World War II made him a living legend, and his tireless pursuit of the truth earned him an unwavering public respect as a true American patriot, even if he had to balance the serious news of his most famous show, “See It Now,” with sometimes banal fluff pieces for another show, “Person to Person.” Murrow was a true reporter, one who knew there was a line that must be maintained, keeping oneself out of the story and not taking sides with an issue. But when Murrow learns the story of Milo Radulovich, a Navy pilot from the Midwest who was removed from the Services for refusing to renounce his father, who was observed reading a Serbian newspaper, Murrow decides it’s time to make a stand. With the support of his producer, Fred Friendly, a team of CBS reporters is sent to interview Radulovich and his family, and the footage that returns to New York City is more incendiary than anyone in the newsroom could have hoped for or dreamed was possible in a Democratic society. Radulovich had been declared guilty without a trial, and all charges had been kept sealed.

Think about that for a moment. How would you feel having your entire life ripped away from you because you refused to denounce your father for reading a newspaper from your home countryr How would you feel if you were never given the chance to face the accuser in a court of law, or hear the charges made against your It should disgust you to see such Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms taken from a fellow American, and it rightfully disgusted Murrow and his fellow news team, and despite reservations the Radulovich footage might get them into hot water with the government and their advertisers, the top brass at CBS allows Murrow to broadcast the pilot’s story, which would prompt a response from Wisconsin Senator Josepth McCarthy, who was then in the middle of his anti-Communist crusade. (Compare that to what happened at CBS during the Jeffrey Wigand controversy, as covered in Michael Mann’s stirring “The Insider.”)

The entertainment community still feels the scars of McCarthy to this day, having been the most visible victim of his campaign. (Do a Google search on the Hollywood Blacklist and see the plethora of books, documentaries and historical artifacts about this fateful moment in modern history.) What “Good Night, and Good Luck” reminds us is that one needed not be someone famous to find themselves on McCarthy’s block. It could have happened to me, it could have happened to you and it did happen to a lot of people whose civil liberties were violated without a shred of evidence. It was recently almost inconceivable to imagine an America that paranoid and insecure, and it’s scary to think the pendulum could possibly be swinging back that way. But without an independent press making sure the governmental checks and balances remain checked and balance, McCarthyism could, metaphorically, be a molehill compared to what could come instead of the mountain it is today.

But, hey, movies are supposed to entertain first and foremost, aren’t theyr I don’t know why the ability to provoke thought can’t be as important to a film as its entertainment value, but fortunately “Good Night, and Good Luck” is equally adept at both. However, it is the very things that help make the film a triumph that will likely keep the masses away in droves. Robert Elswit’s sumptuous black and white photography, which helps Clooney bring actual footage of Radulovich and McCarthy into the film, is nothing short of miraculous, capturing a feel for the early 1950s (which probably only exists in some kind of nostalgic netherworld) that instantly gets the viewers right into the story, along with Jim Bissell’s intricately designed sets (which eagle-eyed viewers will notice there are only seven or eight of) and Louise Frogley’s evocative costumes. One editorial choice that could have backfired that ends up working beautifully is the intercutting of scenes with musical interludes featuring the talented jazz singer Dianne Reeves, whose songs act as a quick breather and as a de facto Greek chorus.

David Straithairn, whose career has taken him from Troma’s “When Nature Calls” and John Sayles to “L.A. Confidential” and “The Firm” and everything in between, finally gets the one role that will make him a household name. He might not be the best looking guy working in film today, but Straithairn in one of the most talented actors around, and he brilliantly captures the spirit, the authority and the strength of Edward R. Murrow. Clooney co-stars as Murrow producer Fred Friendly, and it is their affable banter on set and around the newsroom which provides many of the tension-releasing laughs which keep the film from getting too self-conscious or overtly preachy. Also excelling in smaller, but no less unimportant, roles are Frank Langella as CBS chairman Walter S. Paley, and Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as secretly married CBS coworkers. Clooney, to his credit, has also filled even the smallest roles with talented actors, including Jeff Daniels, Reed Diamond, Alex Borstein, Ray Wise and Robert John Burke.

However, this film belongs to George Clooney, who made this film a personal mission. To some, it might seem like megalomania to become involved in a film as an actor, a producer, a writer and a director, being so dedicated to one’s vision as to putting up one’s house as collateral to raise the parsimonious budget (less than eight million dollars) when film financiers refused to underwrite the production. And while it is guaranteed “Good Night, and Good Luck” will not challenge “Titanic” for the title of the most successful film at the box office, Clooney can feel secured he had created something much more important: a movie that wastes not one second while entertaining and informing.

Rating: A+