'Good Night and Good Luck': Murrow vs. McCarthy

Set in 1950's America, Good Night and Good Luck portrays the real-life conflict between television newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

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The new movie "Good Night, and Good Luck" takes us back to a legendary moment in journalism, the confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. MORNING EDITION and Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan says the film is much more than historical nostalgia.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

"Good Night, and Good Luck" couldn't be more unlikely, more unfashionable or more compelling. Everything about it stands in stark opposition to the trends of the moment. Yet by sticking to events that are half a century old, it tells a story whose implications for today are inescapable. "Good Night" is a marvel of classic restraint in a hopped-up film culture.

Shot in elegant black and white and featuring impeccable acting, it exists because of the lonely passion of director and co-star George Clooney. Clooney is the son of a TV anchorman. That made him determined to examine in some detail the stand CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow took in 1954 against Senator Joseph McCarthy. Clooney had the nerve to believe that a drama of ideas could be as entertaining as "Desperate Housewives." He insisted that a fight for America's soul, a clash of values over intellectual issues like freedom of the press, had an intensity that would carry everything before it, and it does.

(Soundbite of "Good Night, and Good Luck")

Mr. DAVID STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) Ninety-nine percent of the time he's wrong about the people he investigates.

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible) the Senate will investigate him and we will report on that.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) But he's wrong 100 percent of the time when he oversteps his ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: And what are you doing? You're trying him in the press. Does he get the right to face his accuser? Ed, you've just decided on this and now you're presenting it.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) What I am doing here...

Unidentified Man: I write your check.

TURAN: What is dramatic about the lean script Clooney co-wrote is its determination to show how agonizingly difficult it is to do the right thing. "Good Night" takes pains to show how much Murrow risked and, in fact, lost by deciding to take that perilous and unpopular step.

To make sure his film was true to the nuances of the situation, Clooney made two shrewd choices. Fearing that no actor could capture the unsettling combination of bluster and innuendo that characterized McCarthy, he decided to show the senator only in archival footage. And after briefly flirting with the idea of taking the part of Murrow himself, he gave it to David Strathairn, who made it the role of a lifetime. The film returns at its close to Murrow's own words, to his scorn for those who feel the public isn't interested in intelligent TV. His last phrase, `good night and good luck,' was Murrow's traditional sign-off, and it gives Clooney's film an unexpectedly melancholy tinge.

At its best, "Good Night, and Good Luck" reminds us that the battles the newscaster struggled with are never permanently won but must be refought by every generation. Without someone as fearless, eloquent and impassioned as Murrow to fight these battles, we'll need all the luck we can get the next time around.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is a film critic for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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