A red tide comin’: Clooney and Co. craft a spellbinding, pointed critique in ‘Good Night’

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“Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Warner Independent Pictures

Directed by George Clooney

Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Starring: David Strathairn, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels and Joseph McCarthy

Rated PG/93 minutes

Opened Nov. 4

Three-and-a-half out of four stars

It’s rather telling that during auditions for George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.,” there were complaints that the “actor” portraying the infamous Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was “too over-the-top.”

As it turns out, that was no actor, but archival footage of McCarthy himself-and that is McCarthy we see on screen, in stark black-and-white, in this re-telling of the senator’s now-legendary confrontation with TV commentator Edward R. Murrow.

Those in the audition process who thought he was not “believable” only go to show how mythical and larger-than-life McCarthy and the Red Scare seem today, and how McCarthy turned himself into a self-parody.

It was the Cold War in the 1950s, and McCarthy helped create an atmosphere of rabid paranoia, capitalizing on fear to propagate a “wide-reaching” communist conspiracy theory. He transformed a legitimate communist threat into hyperbolic madness, ruining lives and reputations in the process before people finally caught on to him.

The impetus of McCarthy’s undoing-Murrow’s public denouncement of the senator’s methods on the CBS program, “See it Now”-is the subject of “Good Night, and Good Luck.,” which takes its title from the famous closing line of Murrow’s nightly broadcast.

Three years after a solid directorial debut with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” Clooney has crafted a compelling and accomplished docu-drama that not only reinforces the traditional view of Murrow vs. McCarthy, but also serves as a commentary on the decline of serious television in exchange for sensationalism and silliness.

Of course, the lessons of the 1950s have relevance today, and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

“Good Night, and Good Luck.” is short and sweet, running a brisk 93 minutes. That’s all the time Clooney (who also plays the show’s producer, Fred Friendly) needs to tell this story, and he does so with confidence and precision.

Much of the credit also goes to David Strathairn, who does a first-rate job of mimicry as Murrow-and it is mimicry. That’s not a criticism, it’s just the way of the film-we see the same stoic, concise Murrow off-screen that so many people saw on it.

The screenplay, by Clooney and fellow actor Grant Heslov, does fall into a few traps. There are some character-based subplots concerning some members of the production team, and there’s not enough time to satisfactorily settle them all. And the film’s tone is often too reverential toward Murrow.

That said, the film also explores the conflicts of journalistic objectivity and ethics that Murrow’s attack on McCarthy presented. The result of that confrontation was the eventual discrediting of McCarthy, who lived on in the history books only in shame.

Like Murrow, this film should be applauded for approaching this topic head-on and refusing to shy away from something the filmmakers clearly feel strongly about.

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