movie film review | chris tookey

Good Night, and Good Luck

© Warner Independent Pictures - all rights reserved
  Good Night, and Good Luck Review
Tookey's Rating
4 /10
Average Rating
7.42 /10
Edward R. Murrow: David Strathairn , Fred Friendly: George Clooney
Full Cast >

Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov

Released: 2005
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 93

George Clooney’s new film as director, writer and star is proof that these days political correctness is sufficient to earn six Oscar nominations. For those unable to bring themselves to worship Jesus, the Prophet Mohammed or the suddenly cuddly Gordon Brown, Clooney offers a new saint: Edward R. Murrow.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

Murrow was a fine, opinionated communicator who did this country service during World War II when as a radio journalist he reported on the Blitz with an unashamedly Anglophile bias. But was he the man of stainless integrity that Clooney portrays?

When Murrow applied for a CBS job at the age of 27, he lied about his age (saying he was 32), and falsified his educational achievements at Washington State University and Stanford. He was also less than scrupulous during the 1956 election, when secretly he coached a Democrat presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, on how to appear on TV.

The Murrow we see in Good Night, Good Luck is much too sanctified to have done any of these things. David Strathairn (pictured) plays him like Gary Cooper as the noble sheriff in High Noon, or a chain-smoking Mother Teresa.

Clooney’s hagiography starts at a 1958 tribute dinner to the Great Man. Big Ed’s pious words on behalf of journalistic seriousness and against escapist entertainment are meant to contrast with the listening fat cats and withered crones who are the targets of his scorn.

No matter that Murrow’s own bankability with his employers relied less on his serious journalism than on his far fluffier Person to Person series, in which he conducted deferential interviews with celebrities. Ed Murrow was the precursor not only of opinionated leftie commentators such as John Pilger, but of such highly-paid celebrity bootlickers as Simon Dee and Jonathan Ross.

And for Clooney of all people to take so pompous a line smacks of hypocrisy. This is, after all, the actor who brought us such think-pieces as Batman and Robin, Ocean’s Twelve, and Return of the Killer Tomatoes.

Before we can meditate too long on the seriousness or otherwise of his own career, Clooney whisks us back to his hypothetical heyday of heroic, hard-hitting hacks, a five-month period in 1953-4, when Ed and his producer, the fearless Fred Friendly (played by a corpulent Clooney), appear to have been the main guys saving America from a dark age of Commie-bashing.

Well, yes - they did run several programmes attacking Joe McCarthy, the Commie-hunting senator, in their weekly late-night programme for CBS Television, See It Now. But was Murrow really as instrumental as Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov claim he was in bringing about his downfall?

If Murrow was, you might expect him to have been proud of it. But when transcripts of See It Now’s Greatest Hits were published as a book in 1955, Murrow and Friendly didn’t bother to include “A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy”. And Murrow admitted later that he was merely “bringing up the rear” of those criticising the senator.

Other leading broadcasters of the time, such as Elmer Davis and Martin Agronsky, had already attacked McCarthy on air well before Murrow did. Most leading newspapers had been vilifying the Senator for months in editorials.

There was discontent on McCarthy’s own subcommittee, even among such hard line Republicans as Richard Nixon. With or without Murrow’s disapproval, McCarthy came across badly on TV, and it was when ABC presented his hearings live that his popularity plummeted.

And was McCarthy ever as big a right-wing menace as Clooney pretends? Clooney can’t produce a single instance of a person falsely accused by McCarthy of being a Communist.

The nearest is Annie Lee Moss, a middle-aged, black employee who had a job in a Pentagon code room. McCarthy accused her, on the evidence of an FBI informant, of being a member of the Communist Party. Clooney’s film uses real footage of this apparently harmless, confused woman denying membership of the CP. Clooney suggests that she was a victim of mistaken identity, and that she was unconstitutionally ambushed without the right to confront her accuser.

However, the American Communist Party’s own records showed that despite her denials under oath, an Annie Lee Moss, living at the same address that this one did, was indeed a party member in the 1940s. She also received the Daily Worker at home – which suggests that if she was a spy, she wasn’t a very clever one.

But would it have been sensible to allow even a stupid member of a party dedicated to the overthrow of America – as the CP was – to have access to the code room of the Pentagon? I wouldn’t want any member of Al Qaeda, however thick, working for British Intelligence.

And guess what happened to Moss as a result of McCarthy’s supposedly unwarranted attack? She was moved out of the Pentagon code room and continued to work in less sensitive areas of government. That doesn’t sound like vicious repression to me.

But the Left loves its martyrs, and so Clooney’s film shows us the heroic Murrow and Friendly being punished severely by their boss at CBS, William Paley (icily played by that perennial heavy, Frank Langella).

In the movie, Paley calls them in after the McCarthy broadcasts and peremptorily moves See It Now from its weekly slot to a less prestigious, more irregular place on Sunday afternoons.

But See It Now remained in its usual slot for another season and didn't budge until 1955-6. And the reason it moved was commercial – its low viewing figures didn’t warrant a prime-time slot.

It was not, as Clooney implies, because of the McCarthy shows, but after a later programme about the aluminium company ALCOA’s possible involvement in a land scandal - that ALCOA dropped its sponsorship of the series.

Far from penalising Murrow and Friendly, Paley gave them bigger budgets and doubled their time slot. Nor was Murrow the lowly member of the CBS hierarchy that Clooney makes him appear. Murrow was a close personal friend of Paley and a board member of CBS from 1949 through to 1955.

Clooney’s film has received rave reviews from left-wing journalists who love to see their kind romanticised – along with their numerous fellow-travellers, who are content to go with the fashionable flow.

But Good Night, Good Luck is a dishonest and flimsy piece of work. It’s padded out to feature length with jazzy musical numbers that serve no narrative purpose and distract from the realism (are we really meant to believe that CBS had a permanent in-house cabaret?) A domestic sub-plot wastes more time, plus the talents of two fine actors in Robert Downey Jr and Patricia Clarkson.

The film never makes clear what functions the various members of Murrow’s team are performing. Their characters are never developed. We get no insights into Murrow’s psychology, still less McCarthy’s. They are simply good and evil.

David Strathairn, though a skilled supporting actor, lacks the drive or complexity to bring the sanctified Murrow to real life. Clooney is bland and uninteresting as Friendly, who might as well be called Clooney. McCarthy looks brutish, belligerent and slightly bonkers as himself on the integrated newsreel clips, though no more so than John Prescott.

Clooney is well served by his art directors and cinematographer, who do help to evoke the claustrophobia and cameraderie of a TV production team. But despite his Oscar nomination, he is not much of a director. His problem is not that his film is in monochrome, but that he sees the issues in black and white.

McCarthy may have been a bully, a drunk and a buffoon in that he never managed to catch any major offenders, but he also turned out to be right that there was an extensive Communist spy ring in the USA.

Ruussian documents discovered after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s show that it numbered several hundred and included high-flyers such as Harry D. White, an Assistant Secretary in the Treasury Department, who became the US Director of the International Monetary Fund.

Clooney’s purpose with this film is to badmouth the Right as unconstitutional and repressive, conveniently ignoring the fact that the impeccably left-wing Robert F. Kennedy was an enthusiastic member of McCarthy’s investigative team.

Clooney also wants to inspire left-wing commentators of today to follow Murrow’s lead and tell America the “truth” about their leaders. But when have they not done that? And why should we believe Clooney, when he can’t even tell the truth about Edward R. Murrow?

Key to Symbols