Today, history records Edward R. Murrow as a towering journalist and Senator McCarthy as a sniveling tyrant. Don't you love it when history gets it right.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"We can compete, and successfully, not only in the area of bombs, but in the area of ideas."
--Edward R. Murrow

Among the multitude of films made in the last few years about real-life people--films covering singing stars, sports legends, writers, politicians, and academics--2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck," about newscaster Edward R. Murrow, ranks high on the list. David Strathairn's portrayal of the celebrated newsman, like Philip Seymour Hoffman's depiction of the celebrated author Truman Capote the same year, is so dead-on accurate as to be uncanny. Add the political angle to "Good Night, and Good Luck," a message that still resonates today after half a century, and you get a superb motion-picture experience.

Two opening asides: (1) Before going any further I'd like to explain that the title of this movie is actually "Good Night, and Good Luck." with a period after it. That's because the title was a tag line with which Murrow would customarily close his programs. As a sentence, it is naturally followed by a period, but for purposes of this review I'm going to leave the period out as being a bit awkward. (2) I believe a viewer should have as much background material as possible on the real-life subject matter of this film in order to appreciate how well the filmmakers have recreated it; therefore, I have included more plot information than I usually would.

First, then, some background on the movie's two key participants, courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Here, we read that Edward R. Murrow was a "radio and television broadcaster who was the most influential and esteemed figure in American broadcast journalism during its formative years." After the Second World War "Murrow became CBS vice president in charge of news, education, and discussion programs. He returned to radio broadcasting in 1947 with a weeknight newscast. With Fred W. Friendly he produced 'Hear It Now,' an authoritative hour-long weekly news digest, and moved on to television with a comparable series, 'See It Now.' Murrow was a notable force for the free and uncensored dissemination of information during the American anticommunist hysteria of the early 1950s. In 1954 he produced a notable exposé of the dubious tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had gained prominence with flamboyant charges of communist infiltration of U.S. government agencies."

Further, the Encyclopedia reminds us that Joseph R. McCarthy was a "U.S. senator who dominated the early 1950s by his sensational but unproved charges of Communist subversion in high government circles. In a rare move, he was officially censured for unbecoming conduct by his Senate colleagues (Dec. 2, 1954), thus ending the era of McCarthyism.

McCarthy was a quiet and undistinguished senator until February 1950, when his public charge that 205 Communists had infiltrated the State Department created a furor and catapulted him into headlines across the country. Upon subsequently testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he proved unable to produce the name of a single 'card-carrying Communist' in any government department. Nevertheless, he gained increasing popular support for his campaign of his supporters, he appeared as a dedicated patriot and guardian of genuine Americanism; to his detractors, as an irresponsible, self-seeking witch-hunter who was undermining the nation's traditions of civil liberties. The persecution of innocent persons on the charge of being Communists and the forced conformity that this practice engendered in American public life came to be known as McCarthyism. McCarthy's increasingly irresponsible attacks came to include President Dwight D. Eisenhower and other Republican and Democratic leaders. His influence waned in 1954 as a result of the sensational, nationally televised, 36-day hearing on his charges of subversion by U.S. Army officers and civilian officials."

"Good Night, and Good Luck" focuses solely on Murrow's unmasking of Senator McCarthy, whom the newsman regarded as almost as much a threat to American freedom as the Communists were. And I do mean "focuses." The movie does not attempt to give us a biography of Murrow; indeed, we learn little about the man's personal life, only about his professional life as regards the McCarthy episode, and it is all the better for it. The movie's star, its theme, its focus, and its creation of a time and a place are its essential assets.

George Clooney cowrote and directed the movie as well as co-stars. Things are told in flashback from the perspective of a 1958 dinner honoring Murrow, at which the newsman spoke to the gathering with a remarkable candor about the state of American television at the time. As he is speaking, the story moves back to 1953, when Murrow was working for CBS and just making some tentative jabs at Senator McCarthy. In those days there were few people in the press willing to stand up against McCarthy's wild anticommunist accusations. Often, people who did speak out were labeled as Communists sympathizers, black listed, and fired from their jobs. It was Murrow's impeccable background, his known loyalty, and his proven patriotism that enabled him to butt heads with arguably the most powerful man in American politics of the day. Yet it was still a gutsy move.

In 1954 Murrow put on his first broadcast criticizing McCarthy's tactics. A month later he allowed McCarthy the chance for a half-hour rebuttal, in which just as Murrow suspected he would do the Senator defended himself by attacking the credibility of the newsman, practically accusing Murrow of having been a member of the Communist Party. The next week, Murrow made his follow-up, pointing out and easily countering the lies McCarthy attempted to spread about him. Thanks at least in part to Murrow's very public debate with the Senator, the U.S. Senate began their own investigation of McCarthy and ended up censuring him and stripping him of the chairmanship of his anticommunist committee.

One could hardly ask for a better actor than David Strathairn to play Murrow. Not only does Strathairn look and sound like the newsman, he has all of Murrow's mannerisms down pat, including the way he smoked a characteristic cigarette at all times and the slight twitch of his fingers as he held it. Moreover, Strathairn is just as stoic and composed as Murrow appeared in public and private. The look on his face, for example, is priceless when he finishes a program interviewing Liberace and announces to his "Person To Person" audience that in the next show he'll be interviewing Mickey Rooney. We can see his displeasure at the idea of such frivolity, but it paid the bills and allowed him to do his more serious and well-known work. Among my favorite lines was one that Murrow directs at his boss when the head of the CBS news department tells him he is not being fair, that he must present McCarthy's side as well as his own; Murrow replies, "I simply cannot accept that there are on every story two equal and logical sides to an argument."

Supporting Strathairn are George Clooney as his producer, Fred Friendly, a role for which the actor put on some considerable extra weight; Frank Langella as William Paley, the head of the CBS television network, who was reluctant at first to go with the McCarthy story but in time threw his support behind it; Ray Wise as Don Hollenbeck, a CBS newsman accused of Communist sympathies, who was eventually driven to suicide; Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickelson, head of the CBS news department; Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as Joe and Shirley Wershba, husband-and-wife employees of the CBS news department at a time when it was against the network's rules for married couples to work together; and Dianne Reeves as a jazz singer, whose vocal interludes reinforce the mood of the film. McCarthy himself is portrayed through actual archival news footage, a brilliant idea that is well integrated into the film and lends the narrative an added note of realism.

Clooney does a first-rate job handling the movie's themes, mainly, that a free country must never compromise the civil liberties of its citizens for the professed sake of protecting them. The days of McCarthyism were dark times for individual freedoms in America. For instance, almost every major corporation in the country required its employees to sign a loyalty oath, swearing that they were not nor ever had been members of the Communist Party. CBS required even Murrow to sign the document. If you didn't sign, you'd lose your job.

The movie's focus is absolute. It concentrates almost wholly upon the three television programs devoted to Murrow's encounter with Senator McCarthy. In fact, it's almost jarring to see a couple of incidental matters intruding into the story, like the husband-and-wife tangent and the Hollenbeck suicide, no matter how significant they may be to the movie's message. The concentration on the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation is that intense.

The set decoration, cinematography, costumes, and props recreate the time and place of the story in minutest detail. In this regard, the movie plays almost like a history lesson. Clooney accurately depicts the atmosphere of the newsroom, with its hectic, last-minute decisions and its abundance of backstage bickering, joking, and teasing. He gives us archival footage not only of McCarthy but of other figures of the period and a few actual ads of the day for Alcoa Aluminum and Kent cigarettes that lend verisimilitude to the proceedings. And, needless to say, he provides Strathairn with the exact on-air words of Murrow himself.

"The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one," says Murrow, "and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly."

Because of the controversy surrounding some of his stories, Edward R. Murrow found his place in television news slowly diminishing after his public debate with McCarthy. He may have been a pioneer of investigative journalism, but it came at a price. He died of lung cancer two days after his fifty-eighth birthday in 1965. After his censure by the U.S. Senate, Joseph McCarthy was largely ignored by the press and the public. He died in 1957.

But "Good Night, and Good Luck" is not about the lives of either of these men; it is about the principals they stood for. And, sometimes, the good guys win.

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty." --Edward R. Murrow

For the sake of authenticity and to help recreate the look of mid-1950s' television, Clooney chose to photograph the picture in black-and-white. Now, wait, don't go away. It's gorgeous photography, and for his work cinematographer Robert Elswit justly received an Oscar nomination. Indeed, the picture is one of the best-looking pieces of cinematography imaginable and one of the best B&W transfers since "The Man Who Wasn't There." It's that good.

The Warner Bros. engineers transferred the image to disc at a relatively high bit rate in an anamorphic widescreen that nicely accommodates a 16x9 television. The contrasts are excellent, with deep black levels, vibrant whites, and every shade in between well represented. There's also a touch of grain to make the B&W look even more realistic and help blend in the restored archive footage with the newly shot scenes. Remember, there's a reason why serious still photographers continue to shoot in black-and-white, so one should not let any possible biases against the B&W medium confound one's common sense.

The audio is rendered via Dolby Digital 5.1, but for all intents and purposes it might as well be monaural. The sound does come from the front three speakers, but most of it appears to be emanating from the center stage alone, and almost nothing, not even the jazz interludes, comes from the surrounds. This is not a complaint, mind you, as this is the way television would have sounded in the mid 1950s; it's just an observation. Beyond that, the audio is exceptionally smooth, quiet, and easy to take.

There are three major extras on the disc: an audio commentary, a fullscreen featurette, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. The audio commentary is with the movie's director/screenwriter/co-star George Clooney and the movie's producer/screenwriter Grant Heslov. Clooney does most of the talking on the commentary, and he is both enlightening and charming. He and Heslov combine their remarks about the reasons they made the film with historical information and inside facts on the filmmaking. Plus, Clooney is an amusing and self-effacing fellow who makes one want to listen. The "Good Night, and Good Luck" featurette lasts about fifteen minutes and takes us behind the scenes, supported by some of the people who fact-checked the film, including several of those who were around at the time of the actual events depicted.

The extras conclude with twenty-two scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
If a demagogue is a political leader who gains power by appealing to people's prejudices and emotions, then Senator Joseph McCarthy fairly defines the word. Today, history records Edward R. Murrow as a towering journalist and Senator McCarthy as a sniveling tyrant. Don't you love it when history gets it right.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated "Good Night, and Good Luck" for six Academy Awards: Best Picture (producer, Grant Heslov); Best Director (George Clooney); Best Actor (David Strathairn); Best Art Direction (James D. Bissell and Jan Pascale); Best Cinematography (Robert Elswit); and Best Writing Directly for the Screen (George Clooney and Grant Heslov).

"We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." --Edward R. Murrow


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