Watching Good Night, and Good Luck is like seeing the pages of Life magazine, circa 1954, come to life on the screen. George Clooney's original and powerful vision of Edward R. Murrow's confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy is a work of art. We tend to remember historical events in the light of the visual representations of those events. As the communist witch-hunts unfolded on grainy kinescope television, and on the pages of Life and Look, they burned lasting images into the public mind. We remember them through the pictures.

Clooney, who has enjoyed spectacular mainstream success on television and in the movies, takes a chance here. Shooting in black and white, he illuminates a short period in the anti-communist hysteria that lasted from the end of World War II through the early 1950s. Democratic countries everywhere had a rational and well-reasoned fear of international communism. Dictators like Stalin and Mao were paranoid murderers. Education in those benighted nations descended into loathsome propaganda. Religions were ruthlessly suppressed. Anyone who dissented or tried to escape faced imprisonment, torture and death. It was hard to overstate the evils of communism.

David Strathairn plays the role of the intense news anchor Edward R. Murrow

David Strathairn plays the role of the intense news anchor Edward R. Murrow

Nonetheless, that's like saying a fear of the Devil justified the burning, garroting and hanging of supposed witches in the Middle Ages. A real fear, distorted by political opportunism, diminishes the public's trust in government and actually opens the door to the very influences that it seeks to repress. Such was the case with Joe McCarthy, whose reckless attacks led to public paranoia and steered the nation toward abandonment of the rule of law and diminished constitutional rights. Good Night, and Good Luck captures the fear and suspicion of the times with journalistic clarity.

While hindsight allows us to understand that McCarthy's twisting of facts created guilt by association, it wasn't that clear to people living in those times. The film begins with the CBS news crew scanning the day's newspapers. They come across the story of Milo Radulovich, a navy pilot who has been discharged because of his father's long-ago connection to a leftist organization in Yugoslavia. In his hearing, Radulovich is denied the right to face his accusers and is not even shown the documents being used to incriminate him. To his credit, he goes public, warning that when one loyal citizen is unjustly convicted by hearsay and innuendo, the rest of the nation is soon to follow. Murrow and his crew decide that Radulovich looks good on camera, and will make a sympathetic, articulate subject for an opening salvo against McCarthy. The network executives and the sponsors do not share their enthusiasm, however.

George Clooney not only wrote and directed the film, but plays the role of Fred Friendly

George Clooney not only wrote and directed the film, but plays the role of Fred Friendly

Journalists and politicians knew that McCarthy was a liar and a bully, but nobody wanted to go public and say so. Disagreeing with McCarthy or questioning the veracity of his "evidence" is enough to brand one a communist sympathizer. Where this leads is not hard to imagine. Under the predatory glare of the House Un-American Activities Committee, nobody is safe. The film captures that sense of impending doom as the journalists debate their options.

David Straithairn's Murrow is so tense with barely suppressed rage that he looks like he might just collapse into himself. Murrow, like his CBS bosses and the media in general, tried to stay under the radar of McCarthy's smear campaign. It was just a matter of time, they reasoned, before McCarthy would destroy himself. Just to be mentioned in the same breath as someone under the spotlight was to say goodbye to one's reputation as an American. Jobs were lost. Careers were ended by blacklisting.

Good Night, and Good Luck deals with the very issues that continue to bedevil television journalism. We see the deadly serious Murrow forced to conduct puff pieces designed to draw and hold a lowbrow audience. In one bizarre scene, he interviews the pianist Liberace, asking the gay celebrity when he plans to marry and have a family. Murrow's distraught look when the cameras pull away says it all.

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Ray Wise turns in a moving portrait of Don Hollenbeck

Ray Wise turns in a moving portrait of Don Hollenbeck

Likewise, the question arises: when does reporting the news become creating the news? Murrow and his colleagues know that McCarthyism is tearing the country apart. Do they wait for others to stand up against the madness and then report on it, or do they take on the giant themselves? They decide to bridge the gap. They conduct a scathing exposé of McCarthy's duplicity, and then allow him a chance to respond. The rambling alcoholic senator begins to undo himself.

Good Night, and Good Luck is worth seeing just for its masterful black-and-white photography, an art form in itself. It's not just a lack of color film stock. Classics like Citizen Kane and Psycho are powerful because of, not in spite of, being shot in black and white.

Straithairn, a consistent journeyman actor on stage and screen, finally gets a chance to carry a film here in the role of Murrow. That is not to diminish the other actors, but Stratihairn is just so vivid that we experience the film as his. Frank Langella is particularly good as William Paley, and Ray Wise turns in a moving portrait of the doomed Don Hollenbeck, showing us the human cost of the madness.

Tate Donovan as Jesse Zousmer and Grant Heslov as Don Hewitt

Tate Donovan as Jesse Zousmer and Grant Heslov as Don Hewitt

The interaction of the characters brings back the tone of an era long gone. The all-male newsroom is a haze of gray as the journalists light cigarettes one after another. Murrow, like many television personalities of the time, smokes on camera. A commercial extols the virtue of viewers whose sophistication leads them to smoke Kents. When a hard day is over the journalists unwind with Scotch. No jogging or squash for these guys. A lot of them, Murrow included, succumbed to early deaths from cancer and heart disease.

But another part of that era was the integrity of journalists who were forged during the Great Depression and World War II. These were men who knew that ideas, and the actions that sprung from those ideas, mattered. For them ratings were not the end-all. They were not television "personalities." They were dedicated men who saw their work as essential to the functioning of a democracy.

Good Night, and Good Luck will be particularly interesting to the politically and historically sophisticated, but anyone with a basic knowledge of the McCarthy era should be able to follow it. Those in positions of leadership in churches and other ministries will see it as a cautionary tale: Don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. The truth is the thing. Cherish it and defend it.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Why do free people sometimes allow their freedoms to be taken away?

  2. How can we fight against guilt by association? What would Scripture advise?

  3. Why don't people challenge statements by influential figures that they know are false?

  4. Why did people call the anti-communist attacks a "witch hunt?" Does anything like that go on today? Discuss.

  5. How is modern television news compromised by the need for high ratings?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The film is rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language. There is no sex or violence. The subject matter will be of interest to older teenagers, but younger kids will not understand the issues.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/20/05

"Watching Good Night, and Good Luck is like seeing the pages of Life magazine, circa 1954, come to life on the screen," raves Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies). "George Clooney's original and powerful vision of Edward R. Murrow's confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy is a work of art."

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I agree with Ulstein, and so do other Christian film critics: this is a riveting production. Clooney isn't just another celebrity who fancies himself as a director. Here he has choreographed the most tightly wound suspense film about telling the truth since Michael Mann's Oscar-nominated The Insider.

Clooney gets fine performances from an all-star cast, including Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Ray Wise (Twin Peaks), and the radiant Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, The Station Agent). He does some solid acting himself. But make no mistake: the movie belongs to David Strathairn, who delivers an intense and riveting performance as Murrow himself, the newsman who set new standards for journalistic integrity.

Of course, any film of this nature begs the question: Is it entirely accurate to history? You'll find different opinions The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Slate. But as thought-provoking entertainment, it's firing on all cynlinders, inspiring us to be vigilant, to seek out the truth of a matter, and not to merely accept what authority figures tell us.

Of course, any film of this nature begs the question: Is it entirely accurate to history? You'll find different opinions in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Slate. But as thought-provoking entertainment, it's firing on all cylinders, inspiring us to be vigilant, to seek out the truth of a matter, and not to merely accept what authority figures tell us.

Ulstein says the film "will be particularly interesting to the politically and historically sophisticated, but anyone with a basic knowledge of the McCarthy era should be able to follow it. Those in positions of leadership in churches and other ministries will see it as a cautionary tale: Don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. The truth is the thing. Cherish it and defend it."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says the movie "should educate a new generation about how [Murrow] … bravely took on [McCarthy's] witch-hunting tactics. … Clooney's tribute to a TV golden-age legend is well deserved, especially in this age of superficial, sound-bite reporting."

"The subject matter is interesting and the message quite pointed," agrees Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight). But he concludes that "overall the film was not entirely captivating."

Mainstream critics are raving about the film, saying that Strathairn might be on his way to an Oscar nomination.

from Film Forum, 10/27/05

Bruce Edward Walker (World) says, "Clooney has taken the microphone and used it as a bully pulpit to invigorate today's journalists to 'fight the good fight'—or at least to challenge the authority of a contemporary government Clooney obviously distrusts. If Murrow can bring down the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the 1950s hubbub over communism, Clooney seems to imply, certainly someone from today's Fourth Estate can bring down neoconservatives bent on expending American blood for Iraqi oil. Journalistic objectivity and integrity be damned."

from Film Forum, 11/03/05

I've posted my full review at Looking Closer. I was impressed by Clooney's technical achievement as a director, and David Strathairn's lead performance as Edward R. Murrow is very impressive. But Clooney, in his zeal to portray the politicians as liars and Murrow as a saint, misrepresented what really happened in several cases, and this tarnishes his integrity and weakens his message, which is, of course, about telling the truth.

Andrew Coffin (World) says it's "not a bad movie, but it is most certainly bad history. Mr. Clooney's exercise in hero worship … was clearly devised not as a history lesson but as a modern parable to indict a variety of favored targets of the left."

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But J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) sees things quite differently. "Good Night, and Good Luck is a film that resonates so strongly that it's difficult to judge in its own time … We might not know the full impact or quality of Clooney's film for several years. I do know, though, that it is staggeringly relevant and one of the most important films of the year."

from Film Forum, 11/17/05

Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "But it's all empty glitz and razzle-dazzle, because it's all in service of a severely biased, deceitful film. And the only thing worse than a deceitful film is a deceitful film that claims to be telling the truth. Clooney's movie belongs in this pile, I'm afraid … a brilliant piece of cinema that obscures the light of the truth with too much shadowy journalism."

Good Night, and Good Luck
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
 
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language)
Genre
Directed By
George Clooney
Run Time
1 hour 33 minutes
Cast
David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson
Theatre Release
November 04, 2005 by Warner Independent Pictures
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