Does the name Senator Joseph McCarthy mean anything to you? How much do you really know about McCarthyism? Have you spent any time trying to understand what was happening in the United States during the Cold War? Do you even know what the Cold War was about? Good Night, and Good Luck. attempts to dramatize a small but important point during that part of U.S. history - the moment when television news called Shenanigans on Senator McCarthy's hunt for communists.
It's 1953, and respected journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), along with his colleagues (George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella) at the CBS show See it Now decide to break away from the tradition of reporting both sides of the story, and broadcast a negative report on the McCarthy hearings. The fallout of this report and the fear of reprisals is surprisingly light as McCarthy's rebuttal several weeks later on the same show , which consists predominantly of personal attacks on Murrow, helps bring about the hubristic Senator's downfall.
The above paragraph is the basic plot of Good Night, and Good Luck.. This important story is told in a lean, almost documentary style which is a change of pace from the normal Hollywood practice of adding drama and angst to historical occurences. The other actors in this movie are almost not important - they exist to provide Murrow's support and conflicts. David Strathairn (nominated for a Best Actor Oscar) does a fantastic job here of portraying a principled, educated television journalist who is outraged by the erosion of civil liberties brought on by the fearful atmosphere of the McCarthy hearings. He also sees television as a double-edged sword - he is fearful it is being used to distract, lull, and entertain instead of informing and enlightening the American public. Strathairn has the lion's share of the screen time and most of that time is in closeup. He may very well have deserved that nomination as he conveys an introverted man's emotions with pitch-perfect body language. I could sense his bemusement at having to interview celebrities to 'pay the bills', and I could feel his tension as he went on-air to contest the Senator's accusations.
I have to hand it to director George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov (they also share writing credits) - they take an important story and they tell it like it was, so to speak. The best decision they made while putting this film together was to not cast an actor as McCarthy - like Murrow, they use McCarthy's own words and visage to portray the antagonist to Murrow's protagonist. It is important to note, like the famous broadcast itself, Clooney and Heslov are only interested in telling one side of the story. Echoing Murrow's sentiments about personal responsibility, however, they did scrupulous research to support the side of the story they wish to tell.
The DVD is pretty decent - the picture is nice and sharp and brought to you in glorious Black and White - an appropriate artistic decision considering this story takes place almost entirely at the CBS studios in the 1950's. It really helps capture the flavor of the era. The soundtrack is crisp and almost entirely dialog so fortunately the sound is clear and conversation is easy to follow.
The extras are a mixed bag. The one featurette is a 'companion piece' and I was a little disappointed. They do have surviving members of Murrow's crew talk about the era, but I would have liked to have seen some of the actual broadcast of Murrow's attack on McCarthy. On the other hand this may have been a deliberate omission to avoid comparisons - I don't recall ever actually seeing Murrow in action so I have to judge Strathairn's work on its own merit. The best extra is the commentary by George Clooney and Grant Helsov. They are obviously friends, and thank goodness they keep that interpersonal joking to a minimum (most of it involves making fun of past work). The rest is a fantastic grab-bag consisting of how they filmed the story and filling in the gaps of what was going on in the world at the time. I like their descriptions of some of the filming methods they used, which borrowed heavily from how television was produced back in the 50's. In fact, I almost enjoyed the commentary almost more than I enjoyed the movie itself.
If Good Night, and Good Luck. suffers from anything, it is dryness. Personally, I can easily forgive this flaw because the last thing this story needs is confabulation for the sake of drama. I also applaud Clooney and Heslov for showing the world that a movie can still be made on a minimum budget. Most of all, I applaud them for not hitting us over the head with the obvious parallels with what is going on in the world today. I don't recall them mentioning it once, except for one comment by Clooney in the featurette. This avoidance makes me think they actually think the audience can add things together themselves. I deeply wish the rest of Hollywood would take that thought to heart.