...if you're going to see only one bio-pic this season, make sure it's Good Night, and Good Luck. It probably won't win any Oscar nominations, at least not for its actors, but it's a finely wrought piece of work. David Strathairn stars as the famous radio/tv journalist Edward R. Murrow. But rather than cover his entire life or even the more famous London years, the film focuses exclusively on his confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy in 1953-4. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, Good Night evokes the feel of what it was like to be involved in the early days of television: the live shows, the 1950s subtext, the feeling that you were in uncharted waters and almost making it up as you went along. You could create prime-time, hard-hitting journalism and turn right around and do soft interviews with celebrities of questionable importance. The latter is represented by a hilarious interview Murrow did with Liberace ("So, have you given any thought to getting married?"), but the focus is on Murrow and Fred Friendly's ground-breaking show "See It Now."
George Clooney, who not only directs and stars as Friendly, also co-wrote the script with actor Grant Heslov, and they make the brilliant decision to let Murrow's words stand on their own. So many scenes are just Strathairn, who's always had a quiet intensity about him, reciting segments of "See It Now." But Clooney and Heslov have chosen monologues that resonate far beyond 1953. We hear Murrow decry the fear-mongering of McCarthy and the consequent curtailing of civil liberties. We see Murrow question the falseness of men who are hiding behind patriotism and piety in order to ruin the lives of people who disagree with them. And we hear Murrow denounce those who would use the pretext of Communism to grab and exercise power in un-Constitutional ways. It's clear that Clooney wants to rebuke both the current Bush administration as well as the largely docile press. But he doesn't let the audience off the hook, either. The movie opens and closes with segments of a speech Murrow made in 1958 in which he foretold the power of television to lead its viewers to escapism and to insulate them from the realities of life. He warns his audience to be on their guard. What would he think of us today?Good Night, and Good Luck is a film that resonates so strongly that it's difficult to judge in its own time. I have little doubt that North Country and Capote will receive their Oscar praise and then quickly slip into the video store aisle with other unimportant works that leave nary a mark. But we might not know the full impact or quality of Clooney's film for several years. I do know, though, that it is staggeringly relevant and one of the most important films of the year.
-The Phantom Tollbooth