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Clooney scores with ‘Good Night’

David Strathairn vividly brings newsman Edward R. Murrow to life

It may lack the detective-movie thrills of “All the President’s Men,” or the rabble-rousing media satire of “Network” and “A Face in the Crowd,” but George Clooney’s thoughtful examination of television in its infancy, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” addresses many of the same concerns.

The title was Edward R. Murrow’s sign-off line, which became particularly ominous when Murrow and his network, CBS, took a chance and exposed the destructive behavior of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953 through 54. The Army-McCarthy hearings, which followed, led to McCarthy’s downfall and attorney Joseph N. Welch’s cries for a return to public decency.

Clooney’s movie, which he directed and co-wrote with Grant Heslov, focuses with claustrophobic fervor on the backstage fights, compromises and decisions that led to McCarthy’s unmasking. The chief locations are smoke-filled rooms, dominated by television sets and usually tuned to the CBS eye, and a New York bar where hangovers are born, merciless newspaper reviews are read aloud, and a jazz singer (Dianne Reeves) soothes the stricken with moody standards.

Clooney also plays Fred Friendly, Murrow’s co-producer on the groundbreaking series, “See It Now.” Heslov plays Don Hewitt, who directed “See It Now” and later created “60 Minutes,” and there are effective supporting turns by Frank Langella as CBS chairman William S. Paley, Ray Wise as a troubled newsman, and Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as CBS staffers with a secret.

McCarthy plays himself, in kinescope clips that demonstrate that no impersonator could capture his oddly maudlin brand of menace. Also seen briefly in the clips are Welch, Roy Cohn and Robert F. Kennedy, whose roles in the hearings are not sufficiently explained. Indeed, there is much in the film that will be impenetrable to anyone who isn’t familiar with the period.

David Strathairn’s skillful, well-researched performance as Murrow, which won him a prize recently at the Venice Film Festival, does much to fill in the gaps. He not only makes himself look and behave and react like the Murrow we saw on television; he’s given the man an impressive gravitas that the real Murrow didn’t always demonstrate.

When he’s reduced to asking Liberace about his marital status on Murrow’s other mid-1950s show, “Person to Person,” Strathairn makes Murrow’s chagrin acutely visible. These scenes are designed to show that television was just as obsessed with celebrity interviews as it is now; they also suggest that Murrow did them through clenched teeth. That wasn’t always the case.

Clooney chose to shoot the movie in basic black-and-white — a handy shortcut that literally shows how 1950s audiences viewed this drama in their living rooms. Although the lack of color could have been a distancing device, the issues that Murrow and Co. address could not seem more contemporary.

As the characters talk about the ethics of activist journalism or the lack of news shows about the Middle East, or the U.S. President appears on television to discuss habeas corpus, you may need to remind yourself what century you’re in.