Don’t let the Brylcreem fool you – George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a thoroughly modern piece of movie-making, and an excellent one at that. Welcome to his beautifully stark, black-and-white world of TV journalism, complete with thoughtfully smoked pipes, horn-rimmed glasses and cigarettes so ubiquitous that a primetime newsman could puff away on air without any fear of FCC retribution.
For all its period style, “Good Night” chronicles a chapter of history specifically relevant to our own current TV-news climate, though it takes place long before cable’s buffet of political pundits gained their 24-hour soapbox. Celebrated old-time newsman Edward R. Murrow (portrayed with cold, noble compassion by an excellent David Strathairn, “L.A. Confidential”) questions where exactly he can draw the line between fact and opinion in making his bold public criticism of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist witchhunt.
Clooney’s tightly constructed script doesn’t lose focus and barely even shifts it with the film’s action kept almost exclusively in the CBS newsroom. These newsmen might politely inquire about each other’s wives, but as far as the film is concerned, their lives are at the office. It’s a serious newsroom atmosphere, with all the sharp quick-quip banter and camaraderie that that implies. “You always were yellow,” says Murrow to his nervous producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) before a particularly provoking broadcast. Friendly’s reply: “Better than red.”
There are plenty of lighter moments as well – one memorable scene has Murrow interviewing the famously flamboyant Liberace about, of all things, marriage (Liberace, in archival footage, gamely confesses that he’s simply looking for the perfect “mate”). And a subplot involving the clandestine marriage of two CBS reporters (Robert Downey Jr., “Wonder Boys,” and Patricia Clarkson, “Dogville”) proves especially winsome. Company policy forbids marriage between employees. They’re relegated to either talking shop or exchanging long looks, which Clooney effectively captures with impressive minimalism – this is a couple accustomed to talking with eyes alone.
Clooney has made a remarkable sophomore directorial effort after 2002’s vastly underrated “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” He moves at a brisk clip, demonstrating an ear for lively dialogue and elegant dramatic timing. A jazz singer performing in a nearby studio provides period-music scene breaks, and though the realist camera’s constant motion is a somewhat modern style, the black-and-white coloration keeps the story appropriately dated nonetheless. And perhaps the wisest decision Clooney makes is the length: At 93 minutes, the film’s fight-the-good-fight rhetoric doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Beware – “Good Night, and Good Luck” has a healthy dose of saintly, heroic speechifying. It happily avoids cheesiness, however, by not portraying McCarthy as an unrealistic villain. McCarthy, in fact, portrays himself, as the film relies on an unusually hefty selection of archival footage rather than acting. It’s a crafty move, justifying Murrow’s fight as a noble necessity by presenting McCarthy in all his real-life irrationality. More than just a movie with meaning, what Clooney has actually fashioned is a civics lesson with style.
Film Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars