See It Now

' Good Night, and Good Luck' is a vivid retelling of a TV newsman's fight to end the McCarthy era, when good and evil were black and white.

MovieReview A

October 14, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Good Night, and Good Luck has the guts and the smarts to tell several interlocked stories with passion, wit and sting. At its red-hot center is the attempt of CBS star newscaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) to expose the obscene over-reaching of anti-communist witch-hunter Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin. It's 1954, and after years of witnessing the senator make accusations stick using guilt by association and brute repetition, Murrow thinks it's time to debunk the senator's methods - and aims to do so in an uncharacteristic attack episode of his trailblazing weekly TV news show, See It Now.

But the movie is also about the moral and professional stance Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), must negotiate to reach that point. When CBS chief William S. Paley (Frank Langella) says that if Murrow takes one misstep, he can bring the network Paley built down in flames, the beautifully balanced script (by Clooney and cowriter-producer Grant Heslov) and Langella's elegant force in the role of a corporate giant give Paley's argument substantial ethical weight.

McCarthy and his fellow zealots have generated a paranoid climate in America by convincing its citizens that Soviet Communism has infiltrated the highest ranks of the U.S. government. So even the seemingly slender subplot of See It Now reporter-producer Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) keeping secret his marriage to his news-producer wife Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) - because CBS protocol forbids the network to employ married couples - acquires genuine comic-dramatic punch. It demonstrates how the atmosphere of fear can infect the most intimate relationships.

As a moviemaker, Clooney celebrates the talent and conviction that enable Murrow and Friendly and the rest of their team (including cowriter Heslov as Don Hewitt) to put together their expose with panache and authority. His own restrained performance, not as the whirlwind Friendly of history but as a steady one-man command system, adds to the ensemble's hum without overpowering it. Murrow focuses not on whether the victims of McCarthy's smears were Communists but on whether they received their constitutional rights to face their accusers and respond to evidence. So viewers of all political stripes should feel elated - reminded of a time when appeals to American decency cut across party lines.

The screenplay shows how "Murrow's boys" rely on each other for support, filter out McCarthy boosters in the Hearst press, and home in on the sympathetic words they find in the TV reviews of The New York Times. But the movie is at its most daring when it confronts the limits of their professionalism and of their stoic, manly code. Murrow's colleague, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), the 11 p.m. news host for CBS in New York, hasn't recovered from a broken marriage and can't endure constant attacks from a right-wing Hearst columnist. Murrow doesn't know how to save him.

The scenes between Strathairn's Murrow and Wise's Hollenbeck are movingly ambivalent. Strathairn performs an amazing feat of smoldering concentration in the rest of the movie, but with Hollenbeck he reveals Murrow's uncertainty about how to assuage a colleague's existential despair. It's the mark of a great performance of a courageous yet imperfect man. Murrow may be right to tell Hollenbeck that See It Now can't take on the Hearst press and McCarthy at the same time; ideally, Hollenbeck, who'd been the star of the groundbreaking program CBS Views the Press, should be able to suck it up and keep on doing his job. But Strathairn suggests that Murrow can't handle Hollenbeck's cry for help. And Wise delivers a magnificent illustration of an actor's sympathetic imagination: His Hollenbeck is a big-hearted man who's lost his confidence at the worst possible moment.

Good Night, and Good Luck resists cozying up to liberal audiences and providing an easy catharsis. We probably know from our collective memory that Murrow slew this particular dragon; we may not remember that Hollenbeck committed suicide or that Paley knocked the pins out from under See It Now shortly after this triumph. Technically, the movie has been photographed in black and white, in a relatively modest (1.85:1) frame. But the way Clooney and his cinematographer, Robert Elswitt, have shot it, and the way Clooney and his editor, Stephen Mirrione, have edited it, the movie unfolds in a spectrum of grays, on a screen made prismatic by banks of TV monitors and glassy offices and studios. Even the songs - Diana Reeves swinging out jazzy renditions of tunes like "TV is The Thing This Year" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right" - complement the air of electric irony.

You go to Good Night, and Good Luck expecting inspiration, and you get it. It's also unexpectedly subtle, tense, and challenging, complex both in its take on its subject and in its craftsmanship. So the movie brings you to your feet - and, at times, to tears.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Good Night, and Good Luck

Starring David Strathairn, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson.

Directed by George Clooney.

Released by Warner Independent.

Rated PG.

Time 90 minutes.

Review A

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