George Clooney's sophomore feature Good Night, And Good Luck. is a carefully and concisely composed telling of Edward R. Murrow's historic, televised battle with Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Murrow was the CBS newsman who, in the 1950s, set the standard for all TV anchormen to follow. Murrow's newsmagazine See it Now, co-produced by Fred Friendly, offered analysis of controversial issues of the day, and perhaps no issue was more contentious in 1954 than McCarthy's Senate hearings, designed to root out Communists from all walks of American life.
Tired of watching McCarthy write on the wall (in paranoid, self-serving ignorance of due process), Murrow (David Strathairn) and Friendly (Clooney) championed a See it Now segment that would mostly let McCarthy damn himself with footage of his public commentary. The segment set off a firestorm that ended with McCarthy's political demise, but not before McCarthy would answer his greatest critic by taking up Murrow's offer of a See It Now segment for the purpose of an unedited rebuttal.
Clooney frames the film with Murrow's prescient warnings about TV's movement "to entertain, amuse, and insulate" when it is capable of more: namely great feats of information on behalf of a pacified, ignorant electorate. Ironically, Murrow had to choose his own battles, suffering Person to Person "punishments" as host of the CBS interview show (Clooney uses a Person to Person interview with pop pianist Liberace to underline that Murrow's dual public role, in the hands of CBS chairman William Paley, was sometimes ominous, arbitrary, or even absurd).
David Straithairn does career-topping work as the erudite and pensive newsman, dramatically leveling his right eye on the camera and, thus, at the viewer. Clooney frames Murrow's story with his rueful keynote speech at a dinner in his honor, where the newsman both bites and massages the hand that feeds him ("This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box"). Flashing back five years to the McCarthy era, Clooney reveals Murrow's televised forthrightness before an audience of millions.
Between the dramatic pronouncements, Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov give fly-on-the-wall access to the making of network news. In a subplot strengthened by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, two See It Now staffers must hide their personal lives to dodge an invasive CBS policy, but the fast-paced film focuses on the editorial decisions surrounding a month of shows, covering blacklisted Air Force lieutenant Milo Radulovich, McCarthy, government clerk (and supposed Communist) Annie Lee Moss, and the senator's taped rebuttal.
Clooney gets uniformly excellent work from his top-notch cast. Jeff Daniels and Ray Wise play troubled Murrow cohorts, and Frank Langella appears as Paley, who goes toe-to-toe with Murrow in a bottom-line meeting about the McCarthy fallout and the challenge of programming to boost ratings. When Murrow raises the spectre of censorship, Paley rightly retorts, "I would argue that everyone censors—even you" (Clooney, too, omits relevant details, like McCarthy's denied request to let his rebuttal be delivered by a young William F. Buckley, Jr.). The best performances, naturally, come from the real players seen in extensive archival clips: once more giving him enough rope, Clooney allows Joseph McCarthy to play himself.
Like Clooney's live CBS production of Fail-Safe (directed by Stephen Frears in 2000), Good Night, And Good Luck. uses smoky black-and-white imagery to transport the viewer to the days of live television. More than simply atmosphere, cigarettes practically qualify as a theme in the film. A proud advertisement for Kent Filtered Cigarettes pays witness to the misleading days before smoking's long-term impacts were validated; longtime smoker Murrow succumbed to lung cancer in 1965 (viewers may also recall Michael Mann's The Insider, the true tale of See It Now descendant 60 Minutes dropping the ball on a cigarette-company scandal).
Clooney's gambit of inflecting the story with jazz notes from vocalist Dianne Reeves achieves the desired transitional and tonal effects. It's a theatrical touch to a theatrical movie infused with the energy of live TV (the pace only slackens when Clooney unnecessarily submerges the film into Moss's real testimony, effectively established in a few earlier lines). Good Night, and Good Luck. reminds us that, when played right, journalism is a dangerous game.