One way --and probably the most effective one-- to present important
American history to younger generations is by packaging it into a dramatic
context. Include excellent actors performing at their peak and the
effectiveness of the lesson increases. For his 2nd movie as a director,
George Clooney has chosen incidents surrounding the communist threat
hysteria, induced and exploited by the unscrupulous Sen. Joseph McCarthy in
the 1950's, for his subject.
As major figures in the arts, journalism and government are losing their
careers under the senator's withering accusations, a fearless broadcast
journalist, Edward R. Murrow, uses his great influence and clear judgement to
counterattack in an attempt to stop the outrages in the name of democracy --
even at a time when McCarthy seems invulnerable. The journalistic crusade
The black and white film starts out with the first part of a speech
Murrow (David Strathairn) gave at an industry tribute, warning his audience
of the dangerous currents in the country and the costs of apathy. Those
familiar with the real Murrow will immediately appreciate Strathairn's
focused intensity, slick black hair and impression of undiluted integrity
that he almost startlingly personifies.
Loaded with star power and white-shirted character talent to match, the
picture then takes us into a brisk behind-the-scenes look at a broadcast
station of the period in action, no doubt a re-creation from extensive
research. There's a feeling of accuracy in the setting and relationships
between Murrow's "See It Now" producer in the news division, Fred Friendly
(Clooney), news team members Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) and secret wife
Shirley (Patricia Clarkson--the only woman at the center of things), Don
Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels) and the guy who writes
their checks and reminds them of it, William Paley (Frank Langella).
The problem for Paley is holding onto sponsors when Murrow's challenges to
McCarthy's intoxication with power builds to tidal proportions. McCarthy,
through kinescopes from the period, plays himself and comes off as a
caricature of himself. (One fan of the movie remarked, "I liked the movie,
but that guy with the dark eyebrows was terrible.") President Ike Eisenhower
in whose term of office these events unrolled, is seen briefly in a clip just
to fill out the political perspective.
From the standpoint of showing us the kind of courage it took for someone to
go up against the man who led the inundating smear campaign and the terror it
inspired, Murrow's character is acutely defined and the core of the drama.
Will he back down under the pressure; will he withstand McCarthy's fierce
counterattack peppered with false accusations. Or, will Murrow's own,
considerable influence begin the process of awakening the government and the
country to the circus of iniquities being performed in public chambers? Who,
in the end, will squirm under the heat?
While there is certainly a current of importance threading throughout
Clooney's film, there's also an unemotional distance, as though we're
watching something impressive but not quite gut-wrenching. It's valuable and
worthy; it's dramatic; it has an objective quality that will be plenty
absorbing to a specialized (intelligent, political) audience.
"Good Night, and Good Luck," was Murrow's tag line at the conclusion of every
broadcast. Was that the start of the trademark ritual? Plenty have
picked up on it. Bill O'Reilly's "No bloviating -- that's my job" comes to
mind, as does Keith Olbermann on MSNBC who adopts Murrow's line intact.
I continue to admire Clooney, in any case. You know from the two films he's
now directed ("Confessions of a
Dangerous Mind" was 1st) that he has an admirable cinematic sensibility,
that his taste in talent is finely tuned, and that he'll always be surrounded
by first choice actors as eager to work with him as the reverse. Since his
emergence as an actor on the "E/R" TV series in 1984, he's racked up a more
than respectable credit list of 43 films to date. Everyone loves a winner,
and he's a magnet for 'em.
Robert Elswit's black and white lighting boosts the period look-back, without
slavish immitation, and becomes as inseparable a part of the evocation as
Murrow's cigarette, a constant appendage and part of the iconic image. The
confinement of a story told in offices and corridors evokes the feeling of a
theatre piece but editing and camera movement is fluid and brisk enough to
The film's field of interest is as narrow as the setting, and not so likely
to develop a mad and wild crush at the boxoffice. But Clooney earns an
artistic bravo not only for ignoring the limited payback prospects of
historical drama devoid of action, digital effects and sex, but for using his
marquee magnetism in the cause of not allowing us to forget so arcane a
matter as the vulnerability of democratic freedoms and protections. He
reminds us that there was a time when the corridors of power became a fire
zone, and fear was used as an accelerant of governmental injustice.
~~ Jules Brenner