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Review: Very good 'Good Night, and Good Luck'

Clooney film makes points with strong performances, script

By Paul Clinton

David Strathairn as CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck."


'Good Night, and Good Luck'

Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella

Directed by: George Clooney

Written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Studio: Warner Independent Pictures



(CNN) -- George Clooney has the greatest commodity anyone can have in Hollywood -- clout -- and he's not afraid to use it.

This time, Clooney has used that leverage to make "Good Night, and Good Luck." It's a small-budgeted movie ($8 million, peanuts in today's Hollywood) with a big topic: the historic battle between the legendary CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1954, Murrow devoted an episode of his show "See It Now" to McCarthy, and in doing so helped hasten his downfall.

But underneath is an even bigger topic: the difficulties of reconciling the goals of the news media -- with its mission to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" -- with the profit motive of a successful business.

The movie handles its subjects with intelligence and energy, and assumes the same alertness of its audience. No time is used to explain who these two men -- pioneering journalist Murrow, communist-hunting, red-baiting senator McCarthy -- were; the movie jumps right in to its 1950s setting and doesn't let up for its brisk 93-minute running time.

Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote (with Grant Heslov, who plays producer Don Hewitt), plays Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, and does a fine job. Indeed, the entire film is wonderfully cast and performed. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as show writers and producers Joe and Shirley Wershba, Jeff Daniels as producer Sig Mickelson and Frank Langella as CBS chief William Paley -- just to name a few -- all give strong, believable performances.

But the star of the show is David Strathairn, who plays Murrow. Clutching an ever-present cigarette, squinting into the camera lens, seemingly bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, Stratharirn gives the performance of his life. An Oscar nomination is almost certain.

Clooney wisely chose not to cast an actor for the role of McCarthy, allowing the audience to see actual footage and hear the actual words spoken by the junior senator from Wisconsin as he created a climate of fear. McCarthy's voice and facial expressions still pack a punch; even with the black-and-white photography and stark '50s setting, the film feels as timely as the nightly news.

Sleek and straightforward

This is Clooney's second outing as a director; his first was the overly hyper "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." With this film he's left behind all the bells and whistles. "Good Night, and Good Luck" is sleek and straightforward, adding to its drama -- even though, as history, we already know what happens.

And Murrow's words still hold powerful and basic truths for all Americans, both conservative and liberal. Indeed, the film is framed by a speech Murrow gave in 1958 to a news directors group.

In the speech, Murrow pointed out that television has the power to enlighten, empower and teach but, "It can do so only to the extent that humans are allowed to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Movies also have the power to enlighten, empower and teach -- and offer whiz-bang roller coaster rides. There's nothing wrong with the latter, but it's nice when a film comes along that does the former, and is incredibly entertaining to boot. "Good Night, and Good Luck" will probably need a little bit of luck (and good word-of-mouth) to succeed, but seek it out: It's a terrific film.

"Good Night, and Good Luck" is a production of Warner Independent Pictures -- like CNN, a unit of Time Warner.

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