In 1953, CBS news reporter Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) was feeling the pressure amongst his colleagues (including Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Ray Wise) to submit to Senator Joseph McCarthy's obsession with cleansing America of all potential subversives. Using the forum of Murrow's popular program, "See It Now," the broadcast journalist and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), elected to investigate McCarthy's tactics and found themselves in hot water almost instantaneously with their boss (Frank Langella), sponsors, and the government. Shaken, but undaunted, Morrow continued to unravel McCarthy's procedures through his televised editorials and McCarthy's rebuttals, kicking off the senator's eventual fall from grace.
George Clooney's second directorial effort, "Good Night, and Good Luck" (IMDb listing) is a period piece about the once mighty power the television held to change the world, or, at the very least, certain parts of it. Using the epic battle between Edward R. Murrow and Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy as a focal point for a larger idea, "Good Night" is a riveting look at a volatile time in America and the country's television journalism industry.
It seems whenever George Clooney steps behind the camera, he's determined to challenge himself in ways others aren't brave enough to. His directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," was a purposefully eccentric and show-offy comic drama that didn't know when to quit. In the initial moments of "Good Night," it looks as though Clooney has emptied all of those obnoxious first-time camera obsessions out of his system. "Good Night" is a classically made picture, and Clooney pays careful attention to the nuances of the era, at the same time, embracing small moments of nostalgia with glimpses of period commercials, such as one that sings the praises of cigarettes. He also gets the marvelous jazz performer Dianne Reeves to sing the hits of the year, which Clooney uses as interstitials to break up the tension and capture the smoky, boozy, black and white mood.
The idea behind "Good Night" is to isolate the war of minds between Murrow and the paranoid government as a way of spelling out the fact that television news wasn't always about entertainment and gloss. In the film's 1959 opener, Murrow stands at a podium in front of his peers, there to give an acceptance speech for an award. Instead of a customary thank-you address, the legendary newsman uses the time to warn of the coming change in the television news climate, blasting the powers that be for only using the medium to entertain, not inform. It's a commanding scene not only due to David Strathairn's powerhouse acting (it's the first moment of a brilliant overall performance), but the juicy undercurrent of relativity to today's "newstainment" that Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov pack into their first shot fired.
Since "Good Night" is essentially watching a victory lap for liberal ideals, Clooney smartly plays his cards and uses actual McCarthy footage to let the long-dead senator speak for himself. If Clooney had gone the opposite way, and hired an actor to capture the unique blustery personality of McCarthy, "Good Night" would've flamed out immediately. With the beliefs of fact checking and fair quotation featured as pillars of Murrow's work ethic, the use of the McCarthy footage helps maintain the accuracy of the portrayal, which many actors wouldn't be so willing to embrace.
Through luminous performances and textured cinematography, Clooney keeps "Good Night" from becoming an artificial civics lesson. While the victory is slanted toward Murrow and his crew, the remnants of doubt remain, and the questions of Murrow's carefully selected rebuttals and accountability are raised in the incredibly abrupt climax, keeping this far from the left-wing festival some are expecting (or hoping) to see. "Good Night, and Good Luck" introduces Clooney for the first time as an exceptional filmmaker, interested in challenging material and outstanding performances, and his film is a wonderful look at an era spiraling out of control, and the power of one person to challenge the minds of a nation.
Filmfodder Grade: A-