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[whitespace] Scoundrel Time

'Good Night, and Good Luck' re-creates the story of how Edward R. Murrow gave McCarthy the boot

By Richard von Busack

WITH THEIR cigarettes lit like burning fuses, the conspirators in Good Night, and Good Luck sit in cramped black-and-white rooms rapidly outlining their plot. It's 1953; the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, is inaugurating a purge of supposed Communists in the military. His latest victim is a lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve whose sister was a "subversive." The eyes of the room are focused on the renowned reporter Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), who is planning an exposé of McCarthy's methods. The anxiety level is high because they can't count on management's support, and they don't know whether McCarthy will turn on them as well.

George Clooney staged this scorching, economical film in CBS's television studios in Los Angeles; indeed, the walls themselves seem to radiate anxiety, failure and corporate gutlessness. The lighter touch is provided by a cycle of five songs by jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who uses music to break up the tension. Clooney had the good sense to use the actual McCarthy. In digitally cleansed videotape, McCarthy makes for an unmatchable villain: broad-faced, beef-fed, with unnerving doll-like eyelashes and a pubic squiggle of forelock—a bad Superman, with a strange resemblance to George Reeves' TV man of steel of the 1950s. Opposing him, Strathairn has Murrow's lone purposefulness, his nicotined intensity—if not the comforting deep voice.

Clooney and his co-writer, Grant Heslov, remember how "The Tiffany Network" shamed Murrow by forcing him into celebrity interviews. We see Strathairn's burning contempt as he sits on a dumpy plaid chair after an interview with Liberace. The interview is a kind of punishment handed down by CBS's head, William Paley (played with Olympian peevishness and condescension by Frank Langella). As Murrow's producer Fred Friendly, a never-more-Cary-Grant-like Clooney runs interference. The other nervous fish in this smoke-filled aquarium include Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, lovers hiding out from management spies; Jeff Daniels as a fatuous exec; and Ray Wise, wearing the grimace of the doomed, as one of McCarthy's victims at CBS.

Clooney's film couldn't be more timely. The questions it raises about TV are still unanswered: Can it ever be a tool of information and education? After four years of post–Sept. 11 deference and cowardice by the press, journalists deserve the rebuke heard here: "We are not descended from fearful men." While remembering Murrow's courage, Clooney and Heslov point out where the courage failed. There's an even more discrediting incident than Murrow's failure to stand up for Alger Hiss. Murrow also distanced himself from his liberal colleague William Shirer after Shirer was fired. And Eric Alterman's book Sound and Fury notes that Murrow's career as reporter/commentator led to a class of policy makers without portfolio, all too familiar to viewers of The McLaughlin Report and Meet the Press. You've seen them: George Will blaming the post-flood catastrophe in New Orleans on illegitimate pregnancies, Ann Coulter claiming that the liberals have prevented McCarthy from getting the statue he deserves. On the contrary: Clooney's film is precisely the monument McCarthy earned.

Good Night, and Good Luck (PG; 90 min.), directed by George Clooney, written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, photographed by Robert Elswit and starring David Strathairn, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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