Good Night, and Good Luck, 93 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas on 22 December 2005.


(This is my review as  published in the December 2005 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

“Television is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.”

When was this said? In 2005, about the proliferation of reality TV programs? In 1995 about the introduction of cable TV? No, it was in 1958 by US TV news journalist Edward R Murrow, speaking about the decline of TV news reporting.

Good Night, and Good Luck begins in 1958 and then flashes back 5 years to tell the story of Edward R Murrow’s struggle against the pernicious influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The film’s title echoes the words Murrow used to sign off at the end of his weekly TV show, called See it Now.

We did not see the show in Australia, but Murrow’s name is known to some of us. To me it is synonymous with high quality news reportage, and chain-smoking. Murrow came to the attention of the public through his live news radio reports during World War 2 – particularly during the Blitz. He hosted several TV programs during the 1950s and early 60s. He famously smoked all the way through his broadcasts. He died of lung cancer in 1965.

Hollywood superstar George Clooney directed, co-wrote and co-stars in this intelligent and stylish film. It is Clooney’s second directorial effort. His first was the amusing (and also very stylish) black comedy Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. That film was based on the memoirs of TV personality Chuck Barris, who created various popular TV game shows in the 1960s and 70s, and who claimed to have been a hit man for the CIA. Like Good Night, and Good Luck, it mixed vintage TV production and politics.

George Clooney was born to make this film. His father, Nick Clooney, was an anchorman and news director for many years, and who still writes for a newspaper. Young George Clooney was familiar with newsrooms from the age of 5. Murrow was a hero of his father’s. And as an actor, Clooney got his big break on TV (in the series ER).

Clooney and his director of photography, Robert Elswit, have chosen black and white film. This is not just a stylistic choice – though it does give the film a great period feel. Importantly, it allows them to blend together, seamlessly, archival documentary footage and re-enacted TV broadcasts. It also allows the villain of the piece, Senator Joseph McCarthy, to play himself. It works brilliantly.

David Strathairn makes a wonderfully compelling Murrow, and the terrific ensemble cast includes Clooney as Fred Friendly (Murrow’s producer), Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jnr, and Frank Langella as CBS head William Paley. The band playing throughout belonged to (George’s famous aunt) Rosemary Clooney, and although the singer is Diane Reeves, the arrangements are Rosemary’s: lush 50s jazz.

It was a canny decision to use, as far as possible, Murrow’s actual words. Murrow’s broadcasts were well-crafted and are beautifully delivered here by David Strathairn, but they are not always easy to follow. This was a man who spoke in complex sentences, and was inclined to quote Shakespeare. He always had great respect for his audience and never condescended to it. Clooney as director does the same. He resists the temptation to simplify: he has too much respect for Murrow for that.

Clooney is interested not only in the question of broadcasting responsibility, but also in the tendency to use fear to attack civil liberties, which, he says, we seem to do every 30-40 years. And so, this riveting and intelligent film about TV in the 1950s has important lessons for us now. These days we are told that the “War on Terror” requires us to curtail civil liberties in favour of “public safety,” and we must consider whether we can live with laws like the US Patriot Act, and Australia’s proposed new Anti-Terrorism Act, 2005. But perhaps we would prefer to side with Murrow, speaking nearly half a century ago: “We cannot defend freedom abroad by destroying it at home.”

This film is a gem. See it now!