George Clooney's sophomore directorial outing, Good Night, and Good Luck, could be the soberest look a former TV star has ever taken at the medium that put him on the map. Equal parts affection and distrust inform every frame of Clooney's civic-minded historical drama, a re-enactment of the seminal public battle between principled See It Now host Edward R. Murrow and red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The love/hate dynamic is always on our minds as we watch the See It Now crew committed to serving the public interest, convenience and necessity air a series of reports questioning the ethics of McCarthy's headline-grabbing witch hunt. To do so, Murrow (David Strathairn) depends on the support of the show's producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), who joins him in kicking in personal funds to help the CBS network offset the risk of offending sponsor Alcoa. Their boss, the legendary William Paley (Frank Langella), stands behind them, but only to a point that doesn't drastically compromise his commercial interests. At all times, the air (and the airwaves) remains clouded with cigarette smoke not just because Murrow sucked the things down like lollipops, but as a reminder of the corruption Clooney wants us to see that was part of TV from the very start.
No one can say Clooney hasn't recaptured the era. The gorgeous black and white cinematography and supple jazz soundtrack provide a smooth foundation for Strathairn's terrific Murrow impression. Good Night gets maximum mileage out of the newsman's public face, focusing largely on the shows his crew put on the air and how they talked about those shows around the office when the cameras were off. A few scenes are set at a nearby bar, where bad ink in McCarthy-friendly papers spells mortification for targeted CBS talent Don Hollenbeck (a haunting Ray Wise).
The assiduous insularity is a conscious choice, and it comes tantalizingly close to working. But the movie gradually deflates due to an overreliance on archival footage (of the McCarthy hearings, mostly) and a fondness for speechmaking. Instead of learning who our dramatis personae were in all walks of their lives a luxury the similar and superior Quiz Show freely indulged us we begin to feel we've stumbled into the Museum of Television and Radio. In one undercooked subplot, Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play network employees who fear for their jobs not because of their political leanings, but because they've violated company policy by being secretly married. The value of such an innocuous non-metaphor eludes me. There's no mistaking, though, the similarity of McCarthy's tactics to today's Patriot Act grandstanding, an obvious analogy the film nonetheless belabors.
Maybe such hand-holding is necessary. One of the younger critics at the movie's Orlando prescreening opined that its events would be familiar only to "the senior citizens" a designation I realized I had avoided by a mere 10 or so years. The movie Clooney has whipped up is manna to mainstream reviewers, who can pedantically implore their forgetful (or just uninformed) readers to "see it now" (nyuk, nyuk). But those of us who already know what the stakes are will have to go very gently into this Good Night.