Walking into a newsroom can be a heady experience. Journalists survive on adrenaline. Coffee and cigarettes apart, they are sometimes charged by the importance of what they do. They are Davids to proverbial Goliaths. They bring governments to their knees. They can, at times, even change the world. In 1953, the offices of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) were infused with a spirit we journalists conventionally aspire to. The suits might have been a tad too well pressed and the chain-smoking on camera, hazardously excessive, but back then, newsmen had gumption. In a time when the United States mongered terror to instil the fear of communism amongst its people, television journalist Edward R Murrow took on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist propaganda. Good Night, and Good Luck details the story of his fight, of how “he threw stones at giants” and won.
Directed by George Clooney in black-and-white, Good Night consistently and arguably brilliantly diffuses its inherent potential to be dramatic. Played by David Strathairn with a remarkable ease and poise, Murrow doesn’t once come across as a zealous crusader. To bring down McCarthy, he uses reason, not emotion. He doesn’t invite animated talking heads to better make his point. He uses crisp and clear sentences instead. Once speaking of a socialist who had dedicated a book to him, Murrow says, “He was one of those civilised individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a precondition for conversation and friendship.” There’s a lesson here. If you are an individual taking on the might of the State, articulateness might serve you better than vitriol.
The film’s enviable cast includes Robert Downey Jr in the role of the reporter Joseph Wershba and Patricia Clarkson as his wife Shirley
It isn’t just the jazz soundtrack or the film’s grey palette that brings to life early 1950s America. The shots of Joseph McCarthy we see have been sourced from the archival footage of the Senator himself. In his wood-panelled office, CBS chief executive William Paley (Frank Langella) reminds Murrow of commercial imperatives. With exchanges that bring to fore that daily tussle between proprietor and journalist, Good Night makes sure that it is credibility which wins the day. The film has an enviable cast. Clooney himself plays producer Fred Friendly. Jeff Daniels is CBS director Sig Mickelson. Robert Downey Jr plays the reporter Joseph Wershba and the role of his wife Shirley is essayed by Patricia Clarkson. None of these actors, however, are made to overshadow Strathairn’s Murrow. They quite simply amplify his statesmanship and reinstate some faith in the fourth estate.
David Strathairn’s Murrow and George Clooney’s Friendly’s relationship is one that is imbued with lightness
Its insistence on integrity certainly makes Good Night a film you could see over and over, but what makes that second or seventh watch delightful is the film’s humour. The relationship between Murrow and Friendly is one that is imbued with lightness. Murrow tells Friendly, “Funny thing Freddy. Every time you light a cigarette for me, I know you’re lying.” When Friendly asks Murrow if he has finished his closing piece, Murrow replies, “It’s Shakespeare.” Finally, here’s the Julius Caesar line Murrow quotes with great impact. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Released two years after the US went to war in Iraq and four years after its Patriot Act came into force, Good Night, in 2005, did have a fresh relevance. Eleven years later, the film remains pertinent to us. Be it protests in a national university, a fight against censorship or a presidential candidate condoning racial profiling, Murrow’s words continue to inspire. “Our history will be what we make of it,” the legendary journalist had said. Good Night is but a suitable reminder of that essential caution.