Where is Edward R. Murrow When We Need Him?

Illustration by Christopher SlebodaPhoto: Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures

The best thing about frustration, or even downright contempt, is that you never know what sort of artistic eruption it might inspire. Take, for example, George Clooney versus Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly has used his Factor twice to snipe at Clooney as a celebrity grandstander for the latter’s fund-raising efforts, first for the families of 9/11 victims, and earlier this year for the tsunami victims in Asia. In response, Clooney wrote to O’Reilly, observing acidly that O’Reilly’s show was an example of the fact that, too often, TV was little more than “a ‘box of lights and wires’ ”—a withering description first used by hallowed CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, and (well, whattaya know) also quoted in the savvy, timely new movie directed and co-written by and co-starring Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck.

This trim 90-minute biopic broadside opens the New York Film Festival, and it telescopes—with no loss of accuracy—Murrow’s last few fifties hurrahs as the hardest diamond in Bill Paley’s “Tiffany network.” Optically and metaphorically, it’s a black-and-white film: It glows with Clooney’s stark outrage that Murrow’s brand of advocacy TV journalism, which focused on the helpless and the oppressed, may well be gone forever. (Or at least so it seemed until the events of the past few weeks.) David Strathairn plays Murrow, and his performance is less uncanny (the real Murrow had a puffier face, a more resonant voice) than it is psychologically astute, grounded in dour glances and wry line-readings. The film catches Murrow just as the right wing was using the anti-communist scare to taint him as a news-slanting liberal, sponsors were pulling their ads, and only his long-standing friendship with William S. Paley, the emperor of CBS played with tensile silkiness by Frank Langella, was saving Murrow his job.

And what an elating, rigorous job Murrow had. He presided over a loyal cadre of producers and reporters. These included Fred Friendly (Clooney), Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.), and a lone woman—the Angie Dickinson in this nerd edition of a Rat Pack—Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson). Clooney may be a specialist in embattled camaraderie—he helped revive Ocean’s Eleven, after all—but as in that caper remake, there’s no depth to these characterizations, and Downey and Clarkson are squandered in a goes-nowhere subplot about their secret marriage. Clooney also cuts regularly to jazz singer Dianne Reeves recording tunes in a Columbia Records studio, providing an ironic Greek chorus—Reeves sings the upbeat “How High the Moon” soon after a supporting character commits suicide. She sounds great (and I’ll bet if Clooney’s aunt, the marvelous Rosemary Clooney, had still been alive, he’d have cast her), but the gimmick is ultimately a distraction.

No, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov, like Batman and Robin behind a movie camera, laser in on Murrow’s most colorful super-villain: Senator Joseph McCarthy, at this point in the mid-fifties still wielding power as a career-destroying Red-baiter. McCarthy is the only main figure not played by an actor—actual newsreel footage of the sweaty, suited thug is edited in seamlessly. It’s a canny decision: If Clooney had cast an actor as McCarthy, the portrayal would almost certainly be criticized as over-the-top. As it is, McCarthy’s hammy hectoring stands on its own, while Strathairn does exactly what Murrow did: He simply stares poker-faced at the screen when McCarthy speaks his bullying lies, then turns to the camera to calmly refute the accusations point by point.

Clooney wants to remind his audience that, once upon a time, TV reporters felt some responsibility to expose inequities and injustices, an impulse unthinkable today, except at those rare moments when crisis and emotion intrude. With the exception of producer Ofra Bikel’s fearless investigations for PBS’s Frontline, no contemporary newsperson executes the equivalent of Murrow’s 1960 exposé of the horrific lives of migrant workers, Harvest of Shame.

As the son of a newsman who went on to be a charming host for American Movie Classics, Clooney knows very well the unpredictable compromises faced by news-media folk. He certainly doesn’t shy away from Murrow’s contradictions: The natty muckraker also hosted Person to Person, a chatfest with celebs such as Liberace. Murrow may have been uncomfortable with sucking up to the stars, as Strathairn indicates in quick winces after the camera light blinks off, but Clooney is to be congratulated for dramatizing what few Murrow worshippers will admit: that Saint Ed wasn’t just the ultimate investigative TV journalist, but also the precursor to shills like Barbara Walters. (I’m surprised Clooney didn’t use Murrow’s standard excuse for this: “To do the show I want to do, I have to do the show I don’t want to do.”)

Maybe that’s what Clooney and Murrow share most: the understanding that, no matter how much good you want to do for the public, money is still the bottom line, baby. It kept Murrow in Savile Row suits, and keeps Clooney able to juggle commercial features and noble projects like this. That’s not cynicism—that’s giving something back, and if such a notion strikes you as corny, well, good night, and good luck to you, too.

Good Night, and Good Luck
Directed by George Clooney
Warner Independent Pictures. PG.

Where is Edward R. Murrow When We Need Him?