George Clooney's docu-drama of a pivotal moment in America 's political and pop culture history also marks the actor's latest involvement in a project directly tied to the Golden Age of live television. Having co-starred in the riveting teleplay of Fail Safe - a rare live TV production, in 2000 - Clooney co-wrote, with actor/writer Grant Heslov, a screenplay that traces the events that led to the on air confrontation between pioneering TV newsman Edward R. Murrow, and Senator Joseph McCarthy - the latter, a leading figure in the Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s.
Recreated from original broadcast transcripts and vintage newsreel footage, the film's narrative is like a telescoped chronology, needle-dropping into the pivotal moment when Murrow and news producer Fred Friendly chose to be the first in television to criticize McCarthy's persecution of real and perceived threats to national security.
Guilty by Suspicion , Irwin Winkler's 1991 drama of the Hollywood witch hunts, managed to recreate the schoolyard clamor of the House of Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) public investigative forum, but the drama crumpled and lost its power because of a flaccid, melodramatic approach in conveying the suffering of the story's blacklisted director (played by Robert De Niro).
As Clooney and Heslov recount in their ongoing commentary track, the film - titled after Murrow's program sign-off - was never meant to be a biopic, so there's little melodrama in the finished film. The problem with Good Night , however, lies in its lean approach that assumes the average viewer has a passing familiarity with Murrow and McCarthy. The screenwriters admit that, at a test screening, 20% of the questioned audience had never heard of Joseph McCarthy - an indication that the impact of the Communist witch hunts seems to lessen with each generation, but something Clooney, undoubtedly, hopes the film will correct.
In relying on surviving transcripts, newsreels, audio sources, and interviews with extant CBS News participants - Fred Friendly was consulted during the writing stage - Clooney and Heslov's film pretty much deals with the facts, and by eliminating scenes of dramatic license - transitional, fictional, inspirational, or character-enhancing scenes - Good Night comes off as a very cold film, with fleeting moments of human warmth.
The tragic sub-story of Don Hollenbeck (beautifully played by Ray Wise) resonates more than Murrow's own fear of failing to unmask the bully in McCarthy; according to the Good Night filmmakers, Hollenbeck's family life was in ruins by then, and he would take his own life after years of pillorying from the conservative Hearst publications; so while Murrow is clearly the star character in this true-life drama, it's the problems of his associates and colleagues that are equally intriguing.
Murrow's past is still a bit murky in the film - we know he became a star reporting during the London bomb raids in WWII - but his severely reserved nature means we still don't get a hint of his moral, idealistic nature. His smooth comportment is fractured once in a while, notably in stellar scenes between Murrow and CBS chairman William Paley (a smooth and memorable Frank Langella), and in a witty recreation of an interview with Liberace.
Those familiar with the era, and for fans of TV's Golden Age will find greater resonance in Clooney's film: the visual style, set design, and vintage broadcasting gear perfectly evoke the period, and Clooney also has fun satirizing the ad copy nonsense of cigarette and aluminum sponsors, through the use of vintage ads. Clooney also recounts anecdotes from his father's experience as a TV newsman, and there's some fresh insight as to how these primitive TV studios operated; when one live show was immediately followed by another, requiring a radical set change at breakneck speed from newsroom to jazz studio. (The onscreen transitions serve up some vintage songs, performed, in a deliberate nod to Rosemary Clooney's own breezy style, by Dianne Reeves and her jazz combo.)
The Oscar nominations and media buzzing gave Good Night a too-pristine image - Paul Attanasio's script for Quiz Show remains the benchmark in depicting the facts and fancy of TV's pioneering years - but it's still a remarkable film that should motivate viewers to seek out additional background info. (The DVD should have included some supplementary material - even a bibliography of books for further reading would have been a plus - but as stated in the commentary, archival footage was major expense for the $7 million production.)
Perhaps the film's greatest message is the one that bookends the film: recreating a self-aggrandizing awards dinner by the industry for Murrow, Clooney has Strathairn performs the newsman's actual speech, in which he chastises the industry for wasting the virtues of the technology.
Portentous, critically barbed, and eloquent in a language and moral tenor that seems to have long before the debut of our Digital Age.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan