George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck tells the story of 1950s television journalist Edward R. Murrow. Like Capote, it focuses on one specific event in its subject's career, rather than plowing through a condensed Cliff's Notes version of his entire life. In fact, the film never once ventures away from its artificially lit interiors. It's concerned only with Murrow's on-air battle against Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, the film smartly uses footage of the real McCarthy; any actor would have gone over the top in an effort to capture his monstrous, sweaty and reptilian-like essence. In contrast, Strathairn as Murrow gives a tour-de-force performance, incessantly smoking and fighting with these film clips without ever dropping his famed poker face. Best of all, the film employs Murrow's actual words, and Strathairn reads each crafty turn of phrase with great intelligence and poetic punch.
In addition to his writing and directing duties, Clooney plays Murrow's producer Fred Friendly in a distinctly non-movie star role, crouched on the floor behind Murrow's desk and tapping his leg with a pencil when he's on the air. Apparently, the real Friendly was far more boisterous, and it's much to Clooney's credit that he decided to shrink the role and step out of the way.
Still, unlike the subjects of many biopics, Murrow does not operate in a void. Clooney surrounds Strathairn with an equally hardworking and generous cast: Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Grant Heslov, Ray Wise and Alex Borstein. Langella is especially superb as CBS station manager William Paley, lurking in his dark, wood-paneled office and worrying about too much controversy. Each actor gets a chance to shine, but without upsetting the film's delicate balance.
Clooney, who co-wrote the film with Heslov, understands that film has its own rhythms, and he casts jazz singer Dianne Reeves to help with the appropriate crescendos and silences. She appears in five interludes, providing rest breaks and resetting the tone.
A lesser director might have turned this battle of fear vs. freedom into an exciting onscreen tête-à-tête, complete with soaring music and rousing cheers of victory, but Clooney is brave enough to end Good Night, and Good Luck on a downbeat. It was too soon to tell; did Murrow do the right thing? How do we know we're doing the right thing now?