George Clooney's sophomore film opened the 43rd New York Film Festival on Friday, and "Good Night, and Good Luck" resembles the way the director presented himself at the press conference afterwards: charming, witty, confident, informed, and easy on the eyes. In Clooney's assured hands, the real-life story of how CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow stood up to Senator McCarthy during the 1950s becomes a celebration of journalistic responsibility that speaks eloquently to our current moment.
The methods of McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts were what we today would call "Rovian": the scaremongering and relentless smearing of any individual who dared to disagree are certainly familiar. Less familiar to contemporary observers, however, is the courage and tenacity of anchorman Edward Murrow, played by David Strathairn. On his news program "See It Now," Murrow dared to question McCarthy's methods--in spite of pressure from his bosses and corporate sponsors. In the face of televised counter-attacks (McCarthy, predictably, branded Murrow a commie), Murrow stood firm. The two men never met, but their on-air skirmishes helped to turn the tables on the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Shot in gorgeous black and white, "Good Night" incorporates real footage seamlessly into its monitor-centric environments. The film plays out almost entirely inside CBS studios, where chain smoking reporters with slicked-back hair rush frantically around the newsroom. George Clooney appears on screen as Murrow's producer Fred Friendly, and Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels round out the cast.
Dramatically, "Good Night, And Good Luck" falls somewhat short, simply because it aspires to the same objective ethics as its hero. The movie is too high-minded to feed the audience cheap reversals and triumphant climaxes. Morrow's televised civics lectures, invariably delivered with a lit cigarette dangling from his fingers, are the very definition of sober and rational; the courage on display is almost intoxicating. Clooney, it is clear, doesn't think of his target audience as consumers: this is a film for engaged citizens.