Good Night, and Good Luck

History revisionists like Ann Coulter can bite me: Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunts of the 1950s were a black mark on America’s public record. That isn’t to say communism wasn’t necessarily a threat, and it isn’t to say there might not have been communists in America with dastardly intentions. But it is to say that McCarthy’s campaign of terror was executed with an astonishing degree of inaccuracy and vindictiveness, and that it should not have become as all-encompassing as it did.

One of the men credited with commencing McCarthy’s downfall is Edward R. Murrow, a CBS newsman whose weekly “See It Now” program showed the public what McCarthy was doing and let them see why it wasn’t right. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a fantastically compact little film that calmly details the reporter’s dogged (and ultimately successful) attempt to bring the man down.

“Good Night” is in black-and-white, both in its color scheme and its worldview. (McCarthy = bad; Murrow = good.) It has a prologue set in 1958, when Murrow (played with exquisite understatement by David Strathairn) is being honored by his colleagues at a banquet. He takes the stage, accepts the award, and blasts his industry for being complacent and soft, for seeking to “entertain, amuse and insulate” rather than inform and educate. His colleagues look down at their dinner plates uncomfortably.

From there we are whisked back to 1953. McCarthy, on an anti-communist tear for years, has lately been conducting his investigation into the armed forces, and a minor news story from Detroit has caught Murrow’s attention. An Air Force man has been discharged because his father and sister might have communist leanings, but the specific charges against the soldier are never disclosed, not even to him. Murrow thinks this could be a good entry point into the big-picture view of McCarthyism. The military tries to quash the story. That’s how Murrow knows he’s on the right track.

When the decision is made to take on McCarthy directly, Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), know that all the reporters on his team must have spotless backgrounds. If one of them so much as said hello to a Russian in 1935, McCarthy will surely use it to discredit their reporting.

So in March 1954, an episode of “See It Now” focuses on McCarthy. Murrow presents clips of the Wisconsin senator speaking — and the film uses the actual clips, not re-creations — then points out factual errors when they arise. He lets McCarthy’s words speak for themselves, and he offers to let the senator reply on the air if he so chooses.

A month later, McCarthy replies. Predictably, his response ignores the inaccuracies that Murrow pointed out and simply attacks Murrow himself. It’s obvious that McCarthy is on the ropes. Public tide turns against him. Shortly thereafter, the senate votes to censure him.

All of this is told in an economical screenplay by Clooney (who also directed) and Grant Heslov (who also plays a newsman): Ninety-three minutes with barely an extraneous moment. The one apparent sidetrack is so clearly a mistake that it can’t actually be one. It involves two of Murrow’s colleagues, Joe (Robert Downey Jr.) and Shirley (Patricia Clarkson), who must keep their marriage a secret because CBS News forbids romance among coworkers. Their scenes are the only ones in the film that provide any glimpse into anyone’s personal life. So why is the subplot included, especially considering Joe and Shirley are not the protagonists? I think it’s because their fear about being caught parallels the general paranoia of the time. It affects their day-to-day routine, but it doesn’t rule their lives. They are able to go on living despite the dangers that lurk.

Contrast this with the sad story of Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), the CBS news anchor who idolizes Murrow and who is ruthlessly baited by Red-seeking newspaper columnists. Hollenbeck isn’t able to take the strain nearly as well as his hero.

The film belongs to Murrow, though, who is portrayed as the kind of man for whom his work is his life. There are references to a wife, but we never see her. Indeed, we never see him anywhere other than at work. The exception is one scene in a bar — where he sits with his coworkers and discusses work.

I don’t know enough about the real Murrow to know whether Strathairn has captured him, but judged on its own merits, the performance is a knockout. Strathairn has no “big” moments, nothing that stands out as the clip to show at the Oscars. Instead, he gives us 90 minutes of a man who is untiringly fixated on pursuing the truth, doing so with a methodical passion tempered by reason. He doesn’t rant and rave, but he doesn’t relent, either. He’s the rational tortoise to McCarthy’s rabid, foaming hare.

There is some pathos in Murrow, too. Though he is enlivened by his victories with “See It Now,” he is disheartened by the network exec (Frank Langella) who slowly drifts from supporting his work to wanting something more peaceful (read: advertiser-friendly). Murrow is miserable over the Faustian deal he made, where in order to keep his beloved “See It Now,” he must also host “Person to Person,” an insipid celebrity interview show. Watch him when he chats with Liberace (from actual footage), who talks about how he’s looking for a wife. Strathairn’s Murrow looks as defeated as a man can look.

The film, whose title was Murrow’s sign-off line each week, was directed and co-written by George Clooney, his second effort as the former (after “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) and first as the latter. If these first two films of his are any indication, the actor-turned-auteur may prove to be one of the most interesting hyphenates in the business. I am as impressed by the simple, uncluttered narrative of this film as I was by the looniness of the last one. To switch gears that abruptly between films, yet still pull them off with such intelligence and wit, requires remarkable skill.

He captures the feeling of TV news circa 1953 just right. The black-and-white film stock helps, of course, but it goes beyond that, to the newsroom filled with people whose conversations overlap, to the constant smoking of cigarettes in every scene. (Murrow is barely seen without one; he would eventually die of lung cancer.)

Though its story is ultimately uplifting and its hero triumphant, the film has a mournful tone to it, too. There’s the sense that, while a short-term victory is in the cards, Murrow’s ideal of a TV news program that actually makes a difference is not long for this world. Sadly, of course, it wasn’t.

Look at how he came at McCarthy: He showed clips of the man speaking, then pointed out significant errors in fact that McCarthy had made. What TV newsman actually calls anyone on their errors nowadays? Who actually says, “No, that’s incorrect, and here’s the source to prove it”? The only one I can think of is Jon Stewart, who anchors a comedy show. And there’s the state of modern TV journalism for you.

A- (1 hr., 33 min.; PG, a tiny bit of mild profanity.)