Good Night, and Good Riddance.

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Schindler’s List assumes that its audience knows enough about World War II that it will easily understand the story in its proper historical context, without being shown or told about Hitler and the like.

The choice is elegant and effective, because the movie works so well as a story. Divorced from the background information that would normally pack expository titles and bog down the pace, Steven Spielberg forced the movie to survive on the power of narrative and character. And by sharpening its focus to the level of the individual, Schindler’s List expanded its impact and emotional scope — an exemplary use of microcosm to speak to more global truths.

Director/co-writer George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck tries a similar trick, circumscribed so that the bigger picture can’t be seen. In this case, however, it’s a massive conceptual failure. The handsome movie is a joy to behold but short on ideas, drama, and humanity. It ends up being a dull film documenting the dull work of dull television journalists, when it really wants to be a sober but nostalgic reminder of heroic muckrakers bringing down the big bad bigot of the Red Scare. Perhaps most crucially, as a lesson for our times it’s a deeply flawed comparison.

This is a professional production that would be perfectly suited to PBS — deliberate, self-important, and boring as hell — if it weren’t so wrongheaded. The best thing about it is that it’s a relatively brief intrusion at 93 minutes.

The film shows Edward R. Murrow’s crusade against Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and how nervous television executives borrowed some spine from this noble and great broadcaster to help end the career of the commie-baiting and -hating member of Congress.

Murrow is played by David Strathairn, who has the benefit of professional-actor looks, professional-actor makeup, and multiple takes; McCarthy is played by McCarthy, who was even uglier than most politicians, (presumably) didn’t wear makeup, and didn’t get the opportunity to re-do lines he flubbed. This is just one way that Clooney cleverly stacks the deck in the favor of Murrow. Big surprise, eh?

The conceit of using actual McCarthy footage (instead of an actor playing McCarthy) to subtly cut down the senator is symptomatic of larger miscalculations. It’s evident that Clooney wants to tie McCarthyism to the current presidential administration, to use the Red Scare as a metaphor for the political climate after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But McCarthy is a straw man in Good Night, and Good Luck, and in the film there’s no indication that he’s a genuine danger to the populace or democracy. If the goal of the film is to shake the public out of present-day complacency, his menace needs to be clearly demonstrated or articulated.

Under any circumstances, though, the analogy is strained at best. McCarthy was responding to a threat that — in the limited scope of the movie — remains nebulous, abstract, and theoretical. George W. Bush, while buffoonish in his own singular way, is responding to a horrific tragedy that already happened.

Beyond that, the implication of Good Night is that our current political situation — in which civil rights are compromised or dispensed with under dubious pretenses — is a failure of journalism, in the sense that we lack an Edward R. Murrow to stand up to the bully. Bullshit: It’s a failure of representative government.

Bush’s approval ratings show that the public understands and is unhappy with what has been done in its name, and that the word has gotten out. The difference between then and now that Clooney’s formulation ignores is that the journalistic and public furor over what’s been done seems to have little effect. The problem isn’t that nobody’s objecting, but that it doesn’t seem to do a damn bit of good, whether it’s Supreme Court nominations, domestic surveillance, or the war in Iraq.

All of this flows from the movie’s biggest flaw, which also happens to be its naked charm: It’s insulated from the real world, nearly trapped in the smoke-filled offices of CBS and fixated on the process and period technology. Clooney’s dad was a television newsman, and it’s not hard to see in Good Night a love letter to Pops and childhood memories.

Yet this reduces it to a movie about television broadcasting, when it needs to be at the least a film about the power, risks, responsibilities, and impacts associated with broadcast journalism and its place in the world of people. There are isolated shots in Good Night of folks watching television, but for the most part these newsmen are hermetically sealed off from the rest of humanity, including the people they’re interviewing. In one scene, a congressional staffer hands incriminating information to a CBS staffer — a warning that the journalists will be fair game for the investigation into communism — but there’s no genuine sense of a threat or urgency to the movie, or even an indication that journalism has or had power within the culture.

Instead of offering cultural and political context, Clooney adds a curious subplot in which two newsroom employees pretend not to be married because of a CBS company policy. Connecting the dots is easy — people should be allowed to be who they are, and not be persecuted for it, damn it — but how does that relate to the Red Scare? Is Clooney saying that people will be married or communist no matter what the rules are? Does marriage equal communism, in the sharing of marital assets, for example, or the submission of the individual to the greater good? Is eternal playboy Clooney equating the oppression of marrieds to the oppression of commies?

And then there’s Murrow himself, a florid, bloviating, nearly humorless ass who would put today’s talking heads to shame with his pomposity and self-righteousness. Even his haughty sign-off — the very title of this movie — is overstuffed with hints of meaning without providing any clue how to decipher it.

There’s a clear romanticism in Good Night — take a look at that richly textured cinematography, and the way it luxuriates in the ubiquitous cigarette smoke — yet Murrow as he’s shown here is hardly some patron saint of broadcast journalism. In the film he’s strictly a commentator, not a journalist at all. Like Bill O’Reilly, he sees something that offends him and goes after it. And I doubt that in 50 years anybody will be making a movie about Bill O’Reilly.

Based on its content — rather than its tone or texture or purpose — a logical reading of Good Night casts it as an indictment of Murrow’s old-school style of television journalism — overblown, disconnected, insulated, insinuating, denying the accused the opportunity to respond in a timely fashion ... .

For me, the movie’s enduring image is a composition with Murrow in the foreground and a television monitor in the background showing the broadcaster. I’m certainly Clooney didn’t intend this meaning, but it’s impossible to deny: Murrow is simply talking to himself.

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