As a filmmaker, George Clooney is still too much of a fan. His overdirected 2002 debut Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind was so choked with stylistic razzle-dazzle and homages to Clooney's favorite films of the '60s and '70s that it could barely breathe. His otherwise breezy and engaging new movie Good Night, And Good Luck is the work of a man clearly in love with the dashing, outsized romance of crusading journalism exemplified by Edward R. Murrow—the drama of live television, politics, history, and the way cigarette smoke curls ever so elegantly in creamy black and white.
Murrow was so charismatic and dashing that he inspired fawning hero worship even among his professional peers, and it's a measure of Clooney's modesty as a filmmaker that he's given this dashing leading-man role to the great character actor David Strathairn while relegating himself to the part of Strathairn's straight-shooting producer. Strathairn lends an upright sense of decency and steely determination to the role of Murrow, who courted controversy in the '50s when he and his pioneering news show directly attacked Joseph McCarthy and his redbaiting reign of terror. In a bold move, Clooney allows McCarthy to play himself in archival footage, where he conveys a sweaty, bullying anti-charisma reminiscent of Richard Nixon and Bill O'Reilly.
Though set primarily in 1954, the film is bookended by the famous 1958 Radio-Television News Directors Association convention speech where Murrow proudly fell on his own sword, attacking his employers for indulging viewers' weakness for mindless escapism and sensationalism. In doing so, the film follows Robert Redford's exquisite Quiz Show in addressing television's fall from grace, how it betrayed its early promise as an unprecedented tool for education and hard news on the rocky road to giving the world The Anna Nicole Show and Fear Factor. But where Quiz Show elevated its story to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, Clooney's film is too lightweight to reach such tragic heights. In part, it's too short—at 90 minutes, including musical interludes and lengthy monologues taken whole-cloth from the historical record, Good Night breezes by effortlessly when it really needs time and space to build up to appropriately epic dimensions. It would be a mistake to dismiss the film's many charms, from a uniformly fine cast—as a depressed newsman, Ray Wise is a particular standout—to musical numbers that feel like Blue Note album covers brought to life, but it's a merely good movie striving nobly but unsuccessfully to be great.