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Good Night recalls the golden age of watchdog journalism

It's a sad reflection on our culture's obsession with celebrity that we must rely on glamorous stars to get heavyweight ideas made into movies. George Clooney must have cashed out a fortune in his celebrity capital to get his sophomore film, Good Night, and Good Luck, financed and into theaters. The talky drama of reporter Edward R. Murrow's CBS broadcasts against Sen. Joseph McCarthy -- filmed in black and white, no less -- might be the most uncommercial movie imaginable.

For Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck weds political and personal concerns. The son of newscaster Nick Clooney, he composes a kind of love letter to the "greatest generation" of telejournalists. What's remarkable is that Clooney's creative decisions pay off so beautifully. Named for Murrow's sign-off line, Good Night, and Good Luck relies on extended excerpts from McCarthy's anti-Communist Senate hearings, quotes long passages from Murrow's broadcasts, and takes place almost entirely within CBS' offices and studios. What could have been stuffy historic footnote instead emerges as one of the year's most passionate pictures.

I don't recall as much as a glimpse of natural light in the film, but the close quarters help get you inside the skin of Murrow and his team of workaholic newsmen, while cultivating the era's paranoia of both Soviet infiltrators and anti-Communist persecution. CBS was no bastion of freedom, requiring employees to sign loyalty oaths and forbidding them from marrying one another, requiring one couple (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) to keep their relationship on the hush-hush. Character assassination runs rampant, with accused "pinko" broadcaster Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise, his smile a ghastly rictus) cracking under press attacks.

Already a legend for his World War II radio reporting, Murrow (David Strathairn) lobbies to devote segments of his hard-news show "See It Now" to McCarthy's unconstitutional tactics in ferreting out communist sympathizers. Murrow, with his young reporters and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), risk not just their show's ratings and sponsors, but CBS' license and possibly their own reputations and liberty.

Rarely do you find a film so in love with writing as Good Night, and Good Luck, which features long takes of Strathairn in close-up, reciting Murrow's words. When Murrow quotes Julius Caesar or coins a phrase like, "We believe that the son shall not bear the inequity of the father," his rhetoric rings music to your ears. Compared to modern-day infotainment hosts, Murrow sounds like a cross between Cicero and Thomas Jefferson. Strathairn gives a masterly performance of contained intensity, conveying the depth of Murrow's feelings while barely raising his voice.

Without stooping to Hollywood-style grandstanding, Clooney and Grant Heslov's tight script conveys the subtle richness of a crackling stage play or archival documentary. It goes beyond simply scolding McCarthy to decry the forces that transform television into a medium of "decadence, escapism and insulation," rather than one that informs and enlightens. In an unexpectedly funny sequence, Murrow, as if held at gunpoint, hosts the celebrity-oriented show "Person to Person" and asks Liberace when he'll be getting married.

Clooney makes no secret of his liberal politics, and Good Night, and Good Luck unfolds as an object lesson for today. The film evokes parallels with the war on terror and the notion of "If you're not with us, you're helping the enemy." Murrow's argument that no one should confuse dissent with disloyalty sounds especially fresh.

Most of all, Clooney fires a broadside at modern-day broadcast news and a national press corps overly frightened of being branded as "biased" or unpatriotic. During the hype over weapons of mass destruction and the rush to war with Iraq, where were the mainstream media's Murrows, Clooney all but asks. Nothing could feel more timely than Good Night, and Good Luck's profile of courage and plea for substance over style.

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