Reel To Reel:How It Rates: ****
Good Night, And Good Luck
Starring: George Clooney, David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr.
Red Flags: Mild Language, heavy smoking
I remember reading Edward R. Murrow's "Wires And Lights In A Box" speech in jouralism school, his address to the Radio And Television News Directors Association where he noted, "if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live." He spoke those words in 1958. About fifty years later we can reach those conclusions without the need for any kinescopes.
Murrow's words on the state of television open Good Night, And Good Luck, a compelling black-and-white drama recounting, in tightly wound tension, one of broadcast journalism's defining moments: Murrow's unmasking of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy as a demogague in red-scared America. I watched the landmark 1954 broadcast a couple of years ago at the Museum Of Radio And Television in Beverly Hills. For somebody who grew up on 60 Minutes,20/20 and Eyewitness News, it's hard at first to understand the ground Murrow broke. But television news, remember, was a medium in its infancy, where techniques of interviewing, storytelling and presentation were still in development. Murrow's approach placed film of the junior senator's own words against him and against the facts. That alone might have been enough. But the legendary newsman capped it with a commentary at the end, saying "we will not walk in fear," and "we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty." Those cable news commentary shows can only wish they had Murrow's power and pull.
David Strathairn mezmerized me as Murrow, right down to his four-pack-a-day chain smoking. Strathairn nails the cadence of the CBS newsman's words on and off the air. Even in everyday conversation, Murrow wastes no language. He talks little compared to his writers and producers, but every phrase rings with authority, honesty, and intelligence. Clooney is Fred Friendly, producer of Murrow's program See It Now and the middleman between the newscaster and CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella). Paley backs Murrow but only as much as the network's bottom line will allow. Paley's payback inflicted on Murrow is Person To Person, a softball celebrity interview program Murrow looks ashamed to be involved with.
Murrow's collission course with Sen. McCarthy begins with a story everybody else is overlooking: a soldier with eastern European heritage is suspected of Communist sympathies without any public evidence to back it up. Murrow looks at the story and realizes this isn't a time to be fair and balanced -- this is a time to expose what appears to be injustice. Give this story to O'Reilly and Nancy (Dis)grace and they'd shout about it for 30 minutes. Murrow let his facts do the talking. Friendly and Murrow soon find they must confront the axis of airbags -- McCarthy himself. The senator appears only through televison and film footage, which is more than enough to underscore his volatility and relentless disregard for the truth.
Good Night, And Good Luck does not try to present the personal side of Murrow, nor does it need to. We get some hints he is a man filled with anxieties, someone more adept at stringing together words than managing relationships. As a sidebar, the film cuts us in on the lives of Joe and Shirley Wershba, married producers who keep their vows secret to avoid CBS regulations. It's hard to tell what they're more afraid of -- being accused of treason or matrimony. Their scenes provide some lightening moments but thankfully don't dull the film's focus.
This is one of the few films, besides The China Syndrome and Broadcast News to treat television reporters with some modicum of respect, a refreshing alternative to the stock characters with stick mics and one-minute standups. It's sure to become required viewing for j-school classes, and when the DVD version hits shelves, please let it include Murrow's orginal McCarthy broadcast.
Not suprisingly, this sure-fire Oscar candidate on many fronts nearly didn't get made. George Clooney pitched it to Warner Brothers, who passed. Clooney and partner Steven Soderbergh got the $7 million in financing themselves and sold it back to Warner Independent Pictures. Shame on the studio head who didn't see the parallels between today and Murrow's time. Good Night, and Good Luck evokes deep thoughts about a nation challenged by the War On Terror, different from the Cold War of the 1950's, but all the same a tool of politicians. It is tempting to brush those parallels aside by saying it's a different kind of war, but really, how different is it on the battlefield of politics?