Screens It's all so familiar

Viewers will recognize the Patriot Act era in Good Night, and Good Luck

With slicked-down hair and a cigarette dangling from pursed lips, David Strathairn bears a canny resemblance to Edward R. Murrow, the first genuine star of TV news. “Good night, and good luck” was the signature valediction with which Murrow ended each broadcast of See It Now, though it took more than luck to slay the dragons lurking beyond a viewer’s living room in 1953. In Good Night, and Good Luck, for all of his success in impersonating Murrow, Strathairn also bears a striking likeness to Gary Cooper, the lean, laconic star of High Noon. Set in Hadleyville, in the Old West, High Noon is the story of a gutsy marshal who dares stand up alone against the outlaws who have terrorized his town. But viewers who saw the movie when it was released in 1952 recognized an allegory of contemporary resistance to McCarthyism.

David Strathairn plays newsman Edward R. Murrow who publicly challenged Senator Joe McCarthy, bringing an end to the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, in
Good Night, and Good Luck.

Good Night, and Good Luck is set during the six months between October 1953 and April 1954, when one flinty newsman, Murrow, took on Senator Joe McCarthy, the Grand Inquisitor of post-war politics in the United States. Yet, for all its attention to the clothing and furnishings of the period, this film, shot in the black and white with which a camera saw the world back then, clearly belongs to the age of the Patriot Act.

Anxious that the foolhardiness of his news division might lose him advertisers and audiences, William Paley (Langella), the autocrat of CBS, summons Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney). “People want to enjoy themselves,” he tells them. “They don’t want a civics lesson.” Au contraire, we insist, and as we do, Clooney the director has won his bet; at least a few viewers accept a morality play whose hero is the Bill of Rights. In our reaction against the cinema of enjoyment is revulsion from contemporary info-tainment and the dumbing-down of broadcast journalism. For all his high-minded dedication to truth, Murrow operates within a commercial system, and we see him grimace after a fluffy interview with Liberace on Person to Person, the program that is his penance for See It Now. When Murrow insists on attacking McCarthy on an edition of See It Now that sensible sponsors shun, a network executive (Daniels) warns him: “You know how many Person to Persons you’re gonna have to do to make up for this.” So, too, does Ocean’s Eleven free Clooney to offer the civics lesson of Good Night, and Good Luck.

Good Night, and Good Luck

Dir. George Clooney; writ. Clooney, Grant Heslov; feat. David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Patricia Clarkson, Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella (PG)

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” insists Murrow. “We cannot spread freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” Except that he died in 1965, he might have been commenting on Bush’s war in Iraq. In Paley’s reminder to his employees that “I write your check” is a critique of current craven journalism driven by profit more than the public’s right to know. A narrow focus on Murrow’s single-minded exposure of McCarthy (who is never seen except in actual footage) provides dramatic intensity, but it also removes the story from the full context of Cold War tensions. Good Night, and Good Luck is an inspiring fantasy of solo combat in which a handsome champion of truth triumphs over falsehood. Good night, sweet prince; during a dismal time that sorely needs you now, good morrow to your waking soul.