There is a reason why Edward R. Murrow is so revered by journalists the world over.
In "Good Night, and Good Luck", George Clooney explores perhaps the most politically volatile period in the newsman's career. In the early 50s, Murrow (David Strathairn, in a great performance) went after Senator Joe McCarthy, devoting a number of his broadcasts to exposing the activities of the "Junior Senator from Wisconsin", the man behind HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee.
If you know anything about this period in history, it is probably that a number of people in the entertainment community were called to testify before the committee. If they testified, they continued to work. If they didn't, they were blacklisted. Many of the biggest stars didn't testify and continued to work; if the studios blacklisted them, their revenues would have dropped. The period of the "Blacklist" is perhaps one of the most reprehensible periods in the history of our country.
What many probably don't realize is that McCarthy started with regular people. Initially, he went after people like a middle-aged black woman who worked in the codes department of the FBI. She worked for a number of decades in the dining room of the large government agency, then received a promotion. Because there may have been a vague link to a "communist" publication many years earlier, she was brought before the committee and lost her job. Another of McCarthy's early targets was Milo Radulovich, a Greek-American who joined the Air Force. McCarthy learned that his father and sister may have been communist supporters and insisted that Radulovich denounce them. When he wouldn't, he was kicked out of the Air Force. The film also reminds us that people like McCarthy viewed the ACLU as a communist organization.
Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), decide to report the story of Milo Radulovich during one of their broadcasts. Naturally, the government is none too pleased, concerned about the security of the Air Force. McCarthy later takes them up on their offer to address the topic. Using his opportunity on Murrow's broadcast, McCarthy denounces the newsman's accusations. Sound familiar?
If for no other reason, "Goodnight" should make you mad because we are watching a JOURNALIST at work. Murrow used his broadcasts to report issues and explore them, in depth, for 30 minutes. What a difference from the claptrap we experience today as "television news". The local news programs spend more time running stories about cute pets (from other cities) and trying to fit world issues and crises into a sixty second window than actually reporting the news. How can anyone learn all of the complexities of any national or world issue in 60 seconds? This is one of the reasons I listen to NPR on a daily basis. "Goodnight" is a portrait of a man at the height of his powers, trying to inform the public about a terrible wrong.
Murrow, Friendly and their team broadcast an interview with Radulovich and then broadcast the HUAC Committee hearings about the woman who worked in the code office. Both events draw the ire of the government and McCarthy, costing Murrow his sponsor. Murrow and Friendly agree to pay for the commercials that won't air because they believe in the story so much. Bill Paley (Frank Langella), the head of CBS, supports them, to an extent, giving them the leeway to run the stories they want to run, as long as they are accurate. But when the sponsors start to pull the ads, Paley became more watchful of the newsman. Paley uses this as leverage to get Murrow to interview a series of celebrities, in exchange for giving him the go ahead to run the more hard hitting stories. Even then, the networks realized the economics of fluff. It is interesting to watch Murrow interview Liberace, from his home, about his marriage plans. Liberace states that he is going to wait for the "right partner" to come along before taking the plunge.
David Strathairn does a great job of portraying Morrow. What I think makes the performance so indelible is that every time we see Morrow, we see the fear he is living with; the fear that McCarthy will continue with his witch-hunt and how it might change America, the fear that his voice will be silenced by a network that needs revenue to stay afloat, the fear that the public will not want to hear his voice. Strathairn portrays Murrow as a strong man, the head of a gang of reporters who are devoted to him, and he must remain strong in their presence. Yet, the fear comes through making his character seem all the more real.
Clooney does a good job as Friendly, Murrow's devoted producer. It is a smaller role and provides less impact than Strathairn's performance, but it does provide a great amount of insight into the support team behind Murrow.
Langella is also very good as Paley. For his few moments of screen time, he manages to portray the complexity of a man with morals running a large broadcast network. He wants to support Murrow, but he also has hundreds of employees to think of. Any decision he makes will affect the lives of all of those people.
Clooney, the director, is less interested in making all of the other people in the team stand out. It is difficult to tell who the other people are, or what their function in the team is. Robert Downey, Jr., Tate Donovan, Reed Diamond and Patricia Clarkson are members of Murrow's team, yet we only get a vague idea of who they are and what they do. Downey, Jr. and Clarkson are married, yet hiding the marriage from the rest of the team. I must have missed the reason behind this. For any other film, this would be a more compelling criticism. In the case of "Goodnight", the film is, ostensibly, about Murrow and therefore should focus on him. It seems less important that the other characters are mere shadows. Clearly, the talent involved wanted to help bring this story to life and didn't care about the size of the role.
Clooney does a fantastic job of recreating the time and space of the CBS Network offices in the early 50s. The film, shot in black and white, has a slightly grainy look, coupled with the constant cigarette smoke swirling throughout the air, gives everything the look of an old television newscast. All of the sets are drenched in shades of black and white, further adding to the period feel. The look really reminded me of one of Woody Allen's good black and white films, like "Broadway Danny Rose". The look is created with such skill that it really enhances the film.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" is a film recreating a specific event. It delves, almost minutely, into the detail of this event giving the viewer a great, uncompromising look at an important moment in our history.