Every once in a while, amidst the barrage of noisy, soulless Hollywood constructions that elbow their way into theatres every Friday, there emerges a film so perceptive and insightful that it magnetizes you to the screen for its entire running time. Films like this don't come along often, and when they do, they are too frequently ignored in favor of the next big Rob Schneider comedy. But it would be a tragedy and a crime if the movie-going public were to pass over George Clooney's quiet masterpiece "Good Night, and Good Luck."
This film is so daring and unique and so challenging to the conventions of the Hollywood formula that one is prompted to wonder how Clooney ever managed to get it made. "Good Night, and Good Luck" recounts an obscure historical incident that was given less than a paragraph in my high school history textbook; it is the story of a 1950s news reporter named Edward R. Murrow who spoke out against the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and, in doing so, helped bring down the most crazed communist hunter of the 20th century. Clooney tells his story without flair, embellishment or the use of any big-name actors. And in an effort to give his material a reserved, matter-of-fact tone, he shoots the entire picture in black and white. Sound like commercial suicide yet? Tell that to the packed Friday matinee audience that broke into applause around me as the credits rolled.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" invites us into the world of a 1950s CBS television studio, where men sit in poorly lit rooms with cigarette smoke curling around them and discuss the news of the day. They are led by Ed Murrow (David Strathairn), a veteran reporter who begins to lose his journalistic objectivity as he watches Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorize the American public with his trumped-up Red Scare campaign. With the help of his right-hand man Fred Friendly (Clooney himself), Murrow rallies his news team to put forth a report challenging McCarthy's methods at a time when doing so had already destroyed the lives of dozens of Americans. McCarthy responds by accusing Murrow and his team of propagating the communist cause, and the two men soon enter into a battle for the minds of the American public. Murrow remains undeterred despite tremendous pressure from CBS to kill the story; his boss (Frank Langella) watches Murrow's broadcast and warns him, accurately, "Somebody's going to go down for this."
In a directorial masterstroke, Clooney chooses not to actually cast McCarthy, instead relying entirely on stock footage dug up from news archives. Supposedly test audiences, unfamiliar with McCarthy's appearance, complained that the actor playing him was far too exaggerated. Watching the actual person, it's hard to believe that this mad-eyed, stringy-haired man, who practically foams at the mouth as he spits forth accusations of communist sympathy, once held sway over American politics.
Playing off against McCarthy's bombast is Strathairn, whose Oscar-worthy performance endows Ed Murrow with a tough-as-nails demeanor and world-weary eyes behind which lie oceans of emotional reserve. He casts the image of a tired warrior, fighting a lonely battle against a monolithic foe. It's a carefully measured performance, and it needs to be; a lesser actor would have taken the easy way out and played the role for mimicry or melodrama. Watch Strathairn as he listens to McCarthy accuse him on national television of being a communist sympathizer: all we see is a slight twitch of his jaw, yet somehow, it says more than any other reaction possibly could.
George Clooney's previous directorial effort was the criminally underrated black comedy "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," which starred Sam Rockwell as a game-show host moonlighting as a CIA assassin. As with his last film, Clooney displays an uncanny knack for capturing the behind-the-scenes bustle of network television. The fact that "Good Night, and Good Luck" takes place almost entirely within the CBS news studio keeps the narrative tight and contained, making its brief 93-minute running time seem necessary rather than truncated. Clooney's camera pans intimately, almost claustrophobically, over the faces of his subjects, drawing us into each scene as if we were silent participants in the proceedings. Again and again, I was amazed by his ability to strike the difficult balance between documentary-like realism and dramatic energy; the best scenes in the film smolder with intensity but always feel believable and never contrived.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" is a fantastic film, but it's also much more than that. It is an incredibly relevant and important piece of work that has the ability to provoke discussion and electrify public discourse. Is Clooney trying to draw parallels between McCarthy and a more recent politician who claims to be fighting a war against terror by keeping Americans perpetually afraid? Almost certainly, but to read "Good Night, and Good Luck" solely as an anti-Bush polemic misses the larger point. The film is meant as a challenge, not just to Bush, but also to an American public that has been too sedated by a capitulating media to bother disagreeing with him. We live in a time without an Edward R. Murrow to goad us out of complacency and to convince us to take back our rights of opinion and dissent. But until another such figure comes along, this film may be the next best thing.