America, 1953. Planning their CBS news show See It Now, hack Ed Murrow (Strathairn) and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) hit on a combustible story: the sacking of a Commie Navy pilot without trial or justification. With pitbull tenacity, Murrow and co.
You can take the man out of TV, but you can’t take the TV out of the man. Granted, we’re all children of the gogglebox, but in the case of George Clooney, the holding glare of the tube shines stronger than most. Clooney’s dad, Nick, was a news anchor for some 30 years; George was five when he wobbled onto his first studio floor. Even before E. R., there was a strong cathode content fizzing in those genes.
Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, was a gregarious if over-styled assault on trash TV. This, his second shout through the megaphone, recreates a key moment from the medium’s golden era — journalist Ed Murrow’s dogged pursuit of witchfinder general, Joseph McCarthy. Curiously, both movies make the same point: that TV has a duty beyond its zombifying power to distract, delude and isolate. Otherwise, there’s no comparison. By any director’s standards, this is superior filmmaking.
Employing a monochrome palette that’s heavy on the shadows and evocative jazz interludes that act as both mood barometer and Greek chorus, the movie’s sense of a nation reduced to a sustained paranoid twitch is artfully realised. Period films often fall for the trappings of sentiment and nostalgia — not here. Clooney plays out the drama with a very modern urgency, bottling the buzz of an under-siege ’50s newsroom through quickfire improvologue before settling into a deep-pressured slow-burn. The principal action takes place in a darkened TV studio lit like a bunker, and for good reason: this is, after all, war.
Murrow clearly liked a good fight — during World War II, he risked his neck reporting from the rooftops in the thick of London’s Blitz. Still, his war of words with McCarthy took true nerve, because he had more to lose than just his life.
In a climate where freedom of speech was killed by fear, if McCarthy targeted you as a “Red”, “Commie” or even a socialist, it was instant guilt by association. It wasn’t just you who was sunk — it was your colleagues, your friends, your family (rather than face allegations, one character here sees suicide as the only available option).
Which leads us to the movie’s most gripping moments: the screened showdowns between Murrow and McCarthy. Murrow — a deadpan, enigmatic Strathairn — calls for tolerance and candour. McCarthy, typically, settles for insults, tarring Murrow “the cleverest of the jackal pack”. Well, better a jackal than a Neanderthal. Tempting as it must have been to cast a McCarthy, the decision to go with archive footage is an excellent one. Not only does it lend a documentary edge to proceedings, it also exposes the hectoring senator for what he was: a ham, a bully, a coward and a thug. History’s already judged him and, figuring history has a nasty habit of repeating itself, Clooney condemns him all over again. Given that a certain George W. has inherited that not-so-great US tradition of passing the buck (a McCarthy speciality), you’d be hard-pressed to call Good Night’s concerns redundant.
The film isn’t without its bumps. This is a microcosm-of-a-moment movie, and character development simply doesn’t come with the territory. Strathairn withstanding, the support feels script-sketched, if not reduced to thematic ciphers (Downey Jr. and Clarkson’s clandestine marriage is used solely to reflect the era’s aura of nervy secrecy). They get your respect alright; just don’t expect any emotional air-punching. Then again, it’s apparent Clooney doesn’t want to leave you with that cosy Ron Howard feeling. He wants to leave you stimulated, talkative and, perhaps, a little combative about the current state of our corporate-badged media. A second viewing certainly promises further rewards.
Provocative, principled and richly detailed, this is compelling stuff. Emotionally its a little dry, but as brain-food, its absolutely invigorating. George done good.