'Good Night': a stirring cautionary tale

Critics' Picks : New Dvds

March 12, 2006

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK / / Warner Home Video / $29.98

Good Night, and Good Luck, the factual account of how pioneer CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) took down the rabid anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Joseph R. McCarthy at the height of the Cold War, is a brilliantly entertaining picture, as personal as it is political -- a tribute to a crusading reporter and a reverie on a bygone era of virile, metropolitan glamour.

The director, George Clooney, filmed it in black and white because he wanted to use period footage of McCarthy. But once he locked the script and built the sets and gathered the cast, the romance of black and white became part of the story of a TV giant taking on a right-wing zealot for wreaking havoc on the Bill of Rights.

Strathairn's Murrow embodies a masculine romantic spirit born of confidence, competence and shrewdness. Clooney plays a deliberately low-key version of Murrow's catalytic producer, Fred Friendly, and turns some crack supporting players, including Robert Downey Jr. and Tom McCarthy (writer-director of The Station Agent), into "Murrow's boys," a top news unit with a knockabout fraternal spirit.

Thanks to the speed of the script that Clooney co-wrote with Grant Heslov (who also produced, and plays Don Hewitt, then a member of Murrow's team), he's able to evoke a hard-boiled nostalgia for Murrow without wallowing in it. Both stirring and surprisingly complex, the movie is simultaneously inspirational and cautionary.

Special features: Clooney and Heslov provide a running commentary that's entertaining and informative, whether they're discussing directorial strategies (Clooney wanted cameras to follow the action as in cinema-verite) or period fidelity, as in the characterization of Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson), who hid the fact that she was married to Joe Wershba (Downey Jr.) because of a CBS policy against both spouses working for the network. The real Joe and Shirley Wershba, and other witnesses, appear in a making-of featurette.

Recommended for a double-bill: Emile de Antonio's riveting 1964 documentary, Point of Order (New Yorker Video, $29.95), which compresses more than 200 hours of the Army-McCarthy hearings into a compelling narrative -- though Heslov, on his DVD, notes that de Antonio manipulates the climactic footage to make it seem as if McCarthy is orating to an empty room.

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THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO / / Dreamworks Video / / $29.99

I love Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, but Julianne Moore gave the best female performance of 2005 in the title role of this underrated knockout of a movie, based on Terry Ryan's 2001 memoir, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. Moore plays a '50s housewife who brings her brood successfully into adulthood with no help from her hard-drinking husband (Woody Harrelson). She turns herself into a champion verse-writer for the promotional contests that helped sell consumer products in that commercial boom-time. Is there anything harder than playing a heroine who doesn't know she is one? Moore pulls it off with mother wit and a deep, brisk maternal passion.

[MICHAEL SRAGOW]

michael.sragow @baltsun.com

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