In December 1948, the renowned broadcaster Edward R. Murrow went on the air to denounce the Red-hunters of the U.S. government who had hounded his friend and mentor Laurence Duggan, a former State Department employee, to suicide.
One can almost imagine the drama: The distinguished newsman, once the voice of blitzed London, hair slicked back, a nub of cigarette in his hand radiating vapors, face as rigid as an Old Testament elder, using that deep voice and crooning rhetoric to lambaste the puny minds of the House Un-American Activities Committee that had so besmirched Larry's good name that the man had leapt in despair from a 16th-floor window.
But you won't find it in "Good Night, and Good Luck," George Clooney's mounting of the dramatic confrontation between the estimable Murrow and the abrasive junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.
One can readily see why. Duggan, as it turned out, was a Soviet spy, code-named "19," then "Frank" and finally "Prince."
He was, moreover, one of many Soviet spies embedded in the U.S. government at the time.
That's not all Clooney leaves out in his account of the Murrow-McCarthy fight: He leaves out the Cold War, the hot war in Korea, the Venona decrypts that proved how sophisticated and exhaustive the Russian intelligence initiative against the American target was. He even leaves out McCarthy himself, relying on archival footage and sparing himself the ordeal of trying to imagine such a fellow as a human being. He also leaves out nuance, context, empathy, anything that suggests the larger truth that nothing is as simple as it seems. The film, therefore, is like a child's view of these events, untroubled by complexity, hungry for myth and simplicity.
Fundamentally, he refuses to acknowledge that, as Joseph Persico wrote in his New York Times review of the 1999 book that brought these realities out, Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's "The Haunted Wood," "the hardest part of these revelations to accept, at least for those of us who deplored the overzealous Red-hunting of the late 40's and early 50's, is that the hunt rested on more substance than we cared to admit, the phony posturing of Senator Joseph McCarthy aside."
The result does a disservice to history: It suggests that McCarthy was an arbitrary sociopath disconnected from a larger issue. That he was just a bad Republican who liked to bully and destroy people out of his own pathology and he was smitten by the powerful moral force of a flawless crusader. Good whupped bad. Good hit bad upside the head. Good kicked butt. But nothing in real life is ever that simple, and to pretend that it is has to be a lie itself. That's the truth that should be spoken to the power that Clooney represents.
Thus the movie fails to apprehend the true enormity of McCarthy's crime. Not that he hounded a few lefties out of government or made a stink about the odd Red dentist who got a promotion at Fort Dix, but that he forever tarnished by association the reputations of the security services charged with keeping us safe from the actual -- yes, Virginia, there was such a thing -- Red menace. That probably did more to help the Soviet espionage initiative than any State Department document that was ever filched for them.
Still, its simplistic premise aside, the movie is shrewdly made. As a director, Clooney (who wrote the script with actor Grant Heslov) seems to channel the techniques of live television drama of that era. He's like some Lumet or Frankenheimer wannabe who loves the big close-ups and stark lighting of television's golden age. The black-and-white cinematography, by Robert Elswit, captures the particular hard-edged electricity of those days. For some reason, the eye decodes black-and-white as more "realistic" than color, and the scheme here is especially beneficial to the overall verisimilitude.
And the movie's built around one extravagant performance: David Straithairn's. Clooney himself, with a few added pounds so that everyone could tell him how "committed" he was, plays Fred W. Friendly, Murrow's producer; he barely registers. A bunch of young actors -- Reed Diamond, Tate Donovan, Heslov, Robert Downey Jr. -- play reporters on the "See It Now" staff and CBS suits, all to little effect. A subplot, in which Downey's character, Joe Wershba, and a character played by Patricia Clarkson try to keep their marriage hidden from CBS, which banned such unions, comes to very little.
Really, only Strathairn as Murrow registers. Is this a performance or an impersonation? That's hard to call, because so in awe of Murrow is Clooney that he stays far outside. Murrow -- he must have had a sense of humor somewhere, huh? -- seems more like John Brown than anyone else, a moral reformer who is never less than 100 percent buttoned down. He looks like the kind of guy who never goes to the bathroom. There's something actually rather dislikable and creepy about someone who takes himself this seriously, and Clooney never lets us see another Ed Murrow. Did the guy drink, joke, pinch bottoms, get angry, root for a ball team, love his kids, read the funnies? You won't find out here.
Now and then Clooney does add a small recognizable moment in all the drama. We see the reluctant Murrow interviewing Liberace on his other network show, the showbiz-themed "Person to Person," and he asks him if there's a Mrs. Liberace in the near future. Oh, no, replies the sequined pianist, I haven't met the right gal yet. Strathairn, off the television camera, gives a little pained look, as if he realizes that while he crusades for the truth on "See It Now," here on "Person to Person" he's just another liar and fraud, playing a hoax on the public.
The movie might have been much more interesting if Clooney had made "Good Night, and Good Luck" -- the title is Murrow's famous sign-off, which probably isn't so famous anymore -- more like "Person to Person" and less like "See It Now."
Good Night, and Good Luck (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for brief profanity.