Edward R. Murrow: David Strathairn
Fred Friendly: George Clooney
William Paley: Frank Langella
Don Hollenbeck: Ray Wise
Joe Werschba: Robert Downey, Jr.
Shirley Wershba: Patricia Clarkson
Sig Mickelson: Jeff Daniels
Warner Independent Pictures presents a film directed by George Clooney. Written by Grant Heslov and Clooney. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language).
As I was compiling the cast list to director and actor George Clooney’s latest enlightenment “Good Night, and Good Luck”, I kept thinking that I was forgetting to credit one of the major roles of the film. The role was that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in 1954 was featured on five episodes of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS news magazine show “See It Now”. Murrow became the first broadcast journalist to criticize McCarthy’s “witch hunt” tactics in his war against the spread of communism in America.
McCarthy, in the movie, is represented only with actual footage of McCarthy himself; which explains why I did not cite him as one of the actors of the film. The amazing thing about this footage of McCarthy’s own speeches and his taped responses to Morrow’s attacks, which were aired as part of an equal air time clause agreed upon by Morrow and the producers of “See It Now”, is how wrong McCarthy comes across just by looking at his own words. It is a phenomenon that I wish I could say I did not recognize in our current political climate.
Much of the success of the film, however, lies in the fact that, like the standards Morrow himself adhered to, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov apply so little editorializing to the story themselves. Like Morrow and his staff’s decision to only use McCarthy’s own words to make their point, the filmmakers tell this story simply and succinctly, with very little dramatic flourish. They leave the audience with the feeling that this was what happened and that’s all they want you to know, any judgment is yours to make or not.
This is not to say the film is made without art and craft. Filmed gloriously in black and white to evoke the feel of that b&w television time period, Clooney includes music interstitials between each major development in the story that both reflect on the time period and subtly comment in a way that is not really part of the story.
Along with telling the story of the news commentary pioneering engineered by Morrow (David Strathairn, “Twisted”) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney, “Syriana”), the movie also goes into the political and business stances taken by CBS Chairman William Paley (Frank Langella, “The Ninth Gate”), Morrow’s favors to CBS of conducting celebrity interviews for allowing him to take on McCarthy on his show, the mental breakdown of CBS News anchor Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise, “Twin Peaks”) sparked by personal attacks against him in the print media, and most interestingly, the secret marriage of two CBS employees Joe (Robert Downey Jr., “The Singing Detective”) and Shirley Werschba (Patricia Clarkson, “The Station Agent”) despite the CBS policy (at the time) of not allowing the employment of married couples.
The film opens with the Werschbas discussing the statements each employee being told to sign by CBS corporate that states they are not members of the Communist Party. Their relationship, like all the stories in the film, is a mirror of what McCarthy was in the midst of putting the entire country through with his commission investigating the threat of communism in the American citizenship. Joe leaves his wedding ring at home everyday even though it is obvious to everyone in the office that he and Shirley are married. The two are good employees but one must eventually be sacrificed for a rule that no one understands. Nobody wants to out the couple, but when budget cuts require staff cutbacks Head of CBS News Divisions Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels, “The Hours”) asks one of them to be the sacrificial lamb so another employee who is in coherence with CBS employment standards doesn’t have to lose their job.
These are good people doing their jobs, which is to do right by the American public. Freedom comes at a high cost, and it takes daring people to question the powers that be to ensure that freedom. This is what is glimpsed here in Clooney’s wonderful film. Morrow and McCarthy exchanged Shakespearean quotations during their important moment in history. Both used this line from “Julius Caesar”, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Clooney is quickly proving himself to be a star with little fault because of his ability to look within ourselves. He may just shed that reputation of being in the worst Batman movie if he keeps master craftsman work like this up.