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Clooneyism

"Good Night, and Good Luck" drags the McCarthy era into our own.

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You can tell that "Good Night, and Good Luck," co-written and directed by George Clooney, has fun showing us the bizarre norms of yesteryear. Consumed with every aspect of television media, it also gives us an inverted look at our own media-driven culture. The movie is an astute recounting of the journalistic exposé CBS's Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) performed on the categorically undemocratic techniques of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in 1953 still leading the House Committee on Un-American Activities' witch-hunt of communists.

The film also stars Clooney as CBS News head and Murrow confidant Fred Friendly, Frank Langella as CBS head William Paley, and Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson and Jeff Daniels as various producers and personnel. Ray Wise turns in a surprise supporting role as a nighttime news anchor hounded for his own political views. It's in this climate of red scare paranoia that "Good Night" begins, with the CBS news family under the threat of losing their jobs if they do not sign a vow of patriotism handed down by the government. Murrow, along with others, signs it. As host of "See it Now," a precursor to "60 Minutes," he then takes on the case of Air Force pilot Milo Radulovich, drummed out of the service because of the communist background of a family member. This piece leads to confrontations with the U.S. military and eventually a public showdown between McCarthy and Murrow.

Clooney, turning in his second directorial effort (the first was the much weirder movie about television, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") dared to shoot in black and white so he could integrate archival footage of McCarthy instead of employing an actor. Funny enough, test audiences thought the McCarthy character was overacting, a revealing aside that shows how brilliant a decision it was. McCarthy is shown to us exactly the way he was put to television audiences: coarse, bullying, phony and self-righteous. In other words, the real man. We get a lesson in how a raw feed can show someone for who they really are.

The central premise of "Good Night" is that at the dawn of television 50 years ago the good guys knew how to wield its power. The bad guys — rogue politicians and big business — were still getting a feel and often fell flat on their faces. The warning repeated throughout is that this imbalance was sure to be corrected, and the keepers of the medium were duty-bound to not let the scales tip the other way. There are several speeches about paranoia, freedom of expression and due process of the law made by various characters during the movie. In one, President Eisenhower (also in archival footage) reassures the public on the rights of the accused. Some of these moments can be heavy-handed, but in retrospect they are better than some of the speeches on television today, many of them assuring the public that their rights are being taken away for their own good. That connection between past and present is always present in Clooney's fascinating film, even when it's subliminal, as in those tasty Kents.

"Good Night" does not follow Murrow to his death, in 1965, from lung cancer brought on by cigarette smoking, but the focus on smoking is too insistent to be coincidence. So are the echoes of history with our own time, infecting even the most conspiracy-theory immune with the suspicion that what's really being exposed is a much more contemporary instance of media manipulation and mass hysteria. Either that or Clooney has accidentally made the most coincidental movie ever. It is telling to remember that "60 Minutes," produced by Murrow's director at "See it Now," waited some 30 years to expose the cigarette companies. The warning: There is always another level of deception that we can't know, no matter how many good journalists (or directors) there are. Good luck indeed. (PG) 90 min. ***** S



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