Good Is The Operative Word

Columbus Alive | October 20, 2005
At some point in George Clooney’s reenactment of the televised battle between legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow and Red-chasing Senator Joseph McCarthy, Murrow’s boss, CBS president William Paley (Frank Langella) barks, “People want to enjoy themselves, not a civics lesson!” Other proof already exists, but Clooney’s film is the latest reminder—and a timely, thrilling one—that entertainment and education don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

From the start, the film evokes something lost and deeply mourned, an unassailable, remarkably intelligent and almost poetic voice in public discourse. As Murrow, David Strathairn, perfectly adopting the journalist’s speaking style and gravitas, takes the podium at a dinner in his honor and eloquently attacks the growing presence of fear and complacency in the media.

The source of his peers’ praise is shown in flashback, as Murrow, his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) and his team of reporters on the weekly news show See It Now focus on the fallout of McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the form of a man wrongly thrown out of the armed forces for his father’s alleged political activities. They next take aim at the senator himself. Adopting a tactic now used well by The Daily Show, the show uses McCarthy’s own recorded words against him. Despite McCarthy’s best efforts to retaliate, Murrow’s history as a World War II reporter basically puts him above reproach.

Few who caught the senator’s attention were as lucky, and Twin Peaks veteran Ray Wise represents one of many left-leaning figures sucked dry in McCarthy’s web of innuendo and slander. (It’s amazing how much of Clooney and Grant Heslov’s script would work today if you replace the word “Communist” with “terrorist.”)

As a secretly married couple working for the network whose union goes against company policy, Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr. provide both a Greek chorus and a subtle comment about how invasion of privacy and denial of freedom is accepted more readily from employers than elected officials. And clips of Murrow’s celebrity interview show (he uncomfortably questions Liberace about his marriage plans) point out that no one is above compromise.

Shot in gorgeous, smoky black and white (the better to match archive footage of McCarthy, who plays himself), Good Night moves with surprising energy through its limited newsroom space, peppering events with catchy, era-appropriate tunes from jazz singer Dianne Reeves, performing in a recording booth. While the script can be exhilarating for anyone who loves words used well, the style in which it’s presented is crowd-pleasing all around.

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