No, no, this isn’t right. This isn’t right at all. George Clooney? He’s the silver-rugged housewives’ crumpet. He’s the smirking smoothie heart-throbbing his way from ER’s OR's to Ocean’s Twelve’s casinos. Only now, he’s not. The pin-up has turned political: directing, co-writing and starring in a ’50s-set monochrome period piece about the war of words between TV newsman Ed Murrow and Commie-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy. Why? Because it’d take a man like Clooney to make political cinema look this damn cool...
Pulling its title (and that impudent comma) from Murrow’s on-air sign-off, Good Night, And Good Luck barges back to the smoke and jazz of ’50s America without leaving a second for the dust to settle. Equal parts history lesson, time capsule, call for vigilance, love letter and cautionary tale, Clooney’s second movie adds up to one wide-awake face-slap.
At a time when witch-hunt hysteria was at full blast, tele-journalist Murrow chanced his career to shoot the legs from under bully-boy McCarthy in a series of live See It Now TV specials.
Retelling his battle – to expose McCarthy and force network bosses to see past the bottom line – Good Night unpacks its dense mini-drama almost entirely within the walls of the CBS newsrooom. It’s hermetic, but hardly dull. Lensing in newsy black-and-white, Clooney and DoP Robert Elswit nail the curt urgency of frontline journalism with absorbing immediacy, capturing the cramped studio bustle, high-risk atmos and rippling chat with alert, busy camerawork.
All quiet suggestion and hardboiled nerve, the movie’s brooding core is David Strathairn’s steely showman Murrow. He’s a masterclass in doing a lot with a little: slick-parted hair, deep, dark eyes and that luxury voice uncurling straight-to-camera broadcast speeches built from Murrow’s own words, while a cigarette relentlessly burns at his fingers (Good Night would be the worst anti-smoking advert ever – if Murrow hadn’t died from lung cancer). But, with Clooney splicing archive news footage into the narrative to bracing effect, Good Night’s biggest acting ace-card comes in the shape of Joe McCarthy... playing himself. It’s a brilliant performance, the sweaty, clunking inquisitor now seeming like a doughy early prototype from Cyberdyne Systems as he rants at Murrow’s attack.
Unlike Clooney’s ambitious debut Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Good Night steadily reveals itself as a small, precise movie that’s underplayed to the max, but one that yawps its agenda in beefy slogans (“The terror is right here in this room”) and loaded silences. Public fear, governments killing freedom in the name of defending it, news driven by commerce instead of news... Now, did we say this was a period piece?
Don’t be fooled. Under its coat of nostalgia and detail, Clooney’s agenda is sledgehammer subtle. The characters – Murrow and McCarthy included – are see-thru ciphers, bolt-on subplots don’t register and Murrow’s portrait comes noticeably scratch-free. Then again, like every good journalist, Murrow hands Clooney a ready-made comeback: “I can’t accept the idea that every issue has two equally reasonable sides to it.”
And Good Night rarely feels preachy. Put that down to Clooney’s passion for the project – it was, after all, his father (a former news-anchor and one-time wannabe Congressman) who put the ink and fire in his blood. Right from the tagline (“In a nation terrorised by its own government, one man dared to tell the truth”), Good Night traces the tremors from 1954 to today. Clooney and Grant Heslov never front-seat their movie’s hyper-relevance, but the snapshots at the fat, lazy lapdogs of 21st-century global media are impossible to dodge.
Looming questions (state security versus individual freedom, the social responsibility of profit-hungry broadcasters) make this a period piece only in the loosest sense. Murrow’s brawl, Clooney tells us, is our brawl and one that must be re-fought again and again. Way back in television’s infancy, Murrow clocked the fact that authorities prefer the screen to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate”. Fitting, then, that a latter-day star of those distractions and amusements has realised it too.