George Clooney’s Movie About TV Doesn’t Get Ike Right

George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, from a screenplay by Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov, comes to us as an austere, almost minimalist labor of love and political projection from Mr. Clooney, who clearly intends us to see parallels between the exorcised demons of McCarthyism over 50 years ago and our ordeal at the hands of flag-waving, Bible-thumping demagogues in and out of government today. As Yogi Berra was wont to say, it’s déjà vu all over again. Naturally, the film has gotten caustic reviews from the conservative right, in reprisal for the rave reviews from the liberal left.

At the showing I attended, there was warm applause at the end—as well there should be, given the film’s ringing defense of dissent in our country at a time of international crisis. But whatever audience the film does attract—and it promises to be not large—it may end up being a case of preaching to the converted, among whom, I suspect, I may count the great bulk of my readers.

The action, such as it is, takes place almost entirely inside the CBS studios just before, during and after Edward R. Murrow’s historic attack on Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954. The film ends with the Army-McCarthy hearings on television, the prelude to McCarthy’s career-ending censure by the Senate.

By shooting the footage in black-and-white, Mr. Clooney and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit, have gained a precious measure of authenticity by presenting the villain of the piece exclusively through archival footage, with all of McCarthy’s inimitable, low-comedy verbal tics intact. As for David Strathairn’s incarnation of Murrow, those of us who remember what the famous broadcaster looked and sounded like may be struck in retrospect by how magisterially reassuring and authoritative the original was, without in any way demeaning the movie’s skilled and resourceful replica. Mr. Strathairn does capture much of Murrow’s formal manner, particularly the measured cadences of his sentences. An even more obtrusive stretch for him, especially these days, is to capture Murrow’s compulsive smoking habit. My mother had an unrequited, platonic love affair with Murrow’s colleague, Eric Sevareid, and frequently urged him (via the tube) to stop smoking before it killed him—which it finally did, as it did Murrow. A period commercial for Kent filtered cigarettes as one of Murrow’s sponsors drives home the point.

The Kent commercial and another one for Alcoa, the Aluminum Corporation of America, reminds us that Murrow was the highly paid employee of a powerful but vulnerable communications empire accustomed to bending with the shifting winds of public opinion and sponsor approval. The Columbia Broadcasting System was especially sensitive to organized boycotts by this or that pressure group. Mr. Clooney’s father was in the broadcasting business, and as the film’s director and co-writer, Mr. Clooney himself cannot fairly be charged with ignoring the commercial realities of the medium.

Yet occasionally he does gild the lily—for example, by showing an off-the-air Murrow wearing an expression of sour distaste after completing a grotesque interview on his popular Person to Person show with Liberace (in all his real-life archival glory), in which the flamboyant entertainer coyly answers a question about any marital plans he might have with a leering reference to Princess Margaret. I never saw the interview, but I find it hard to believe that Murrow would ask that question unless he had been coaxed to ask in advance—either by Liberace himself or one of his representatives. I wonder also if, by that time, Murrow hadn’t become cynically hardened to the frivolous demands of Person to Person, in contrast to the “serious” self-image he projected elsewhere.

Indeed, I have become aware very recently of a right-wing dossier on Murrow, the allegedly disillusioning details of which I am not qualified to confirm or deny. Certainly, there were many ambiguities even then in the debate over the “Communist Menace” both here and abroad, and there have been recent revelations about the damaging Stalinist penetration of our defense industries that, while not justifying McCarthy’s wildly off-target, scatter-gun approach, with its cavalier disregard for civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, nevertheless does call into question some of the anti–Cold War certitudes of the left.

Curiously, it is Frank Langella’s beautifully acted William Paley, the head of CBS, who is shown gently chiding his star newsman for letting McCarthy get away with an assertion that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason, when all he was actually convicted of was perjury in his testimony before a Congressional committee. Was Murrow afraid to make the correction, Paley suggests, because he might be accused of being a Communist sympathizer? This is the only reference in the film to the Hiss-Chambers trial that so traumatized liberals like me and gave additional ammunition to the McCarthyites.

During the 1952 Stevenson-Eisenhower campaign, I was engaged in the fruitless task of ringing doorbells in Queens for Adlai Stevenson when I heard McCarthy on television mock-mistakenly refer to Stevenson as “Alger,” to raucous right-wing laughter, before “correcting” himself with a maliciously triumphant giggle. The Korean War was still on, and I was drafted into the Army to help fight what was then labeled “Truman’s War,” but it ended soon after in a stalemate that rages to this day.

The movie Murrow never seems aware of the bitter aftermath of the Korean War. Nor does he address McCarthy’s ridiculous charge that Communist sympathizers in the U.S. government caused China to fall to Mao Zedong’s Red Army. Still, in such a politically charged atmosphere, it took considerable courage for Murrow to take on McCarthy at all, and Mr. Clooney doesn’t overstate or overdramatize the risks involved in his bold action. Instead, we remain in the expressively ominous shadows of a buddy-buddy workplace atmosphere reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).

There are only two women of note onscreen in Good Night, and Good Luck. One is the jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who supplies much of the moody background music but has no speaking lines, and the other is Patricia Clarkson as Shirley Wershba, a CBS researcher secretly married to Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.), a member of the CBS staff working on Murrow’s broadcasts under the supervision of longtime producer Fred Friendly (Mr. Clooney, in a guest appearance). Of course, the Wershbas’ marriage, forbidden under network rules, is no secret at the office, and this very minor subplot peters out completely when office manager Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels) pulls the plug on the couple indirectly by indicating that if one of them resigned, he (or she) would save the job of one of the other staff members about to be laid off in an economy move. Mickelson thus qualifies as a secondary villain of the bottom-line variety.

Another secondary but more somber subplot involves Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), a CBS reporter who has been smeared as a Red by Hearst television columnist Jack O’Brian. When Hollenbeck pleads with Murrow to respond to the attacks, Murrow reluctantly refuses, even though he has been attacked by O’Brian in a similar fashion. Murrow’s stated reason is that he is in no position to take on McCarthy and the Hearst newspaper empire at the same time. Later, when Hollenbeck commits suicide by turning on the gas in his kitchen, Murrow clearly suffers pangs of remorse as he broadcasts Hollenbeck’s obituary. Mr. Strathairn is at his best when he shows Murrow bearing a burden of grief over the unalterable condition of the world, and Mr. Clooney as Friendly provides an affable, ever-stoical backstop for Murrow’s professionally repressed angst. It is, in short, the Murrow-Friendly axis that makes the earth slightly change its orbit for one night of moral outrage on a medium not renowned for its courage and forthrightness.

My strongest reservation about the choices Mr. Clooney and Mr. Heslov have made about the politics of the era is their decision to include an archival television appearance by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in which he makes a moralistic appeal for compliance with the Constitution’s guarantee of our basic civil rights. It all sounds very sincere in its vagueness; however, my objection arises over Eisenhower’s failure to defend his greatest benefactor, Gen. George Marshall, from McCarthy’s scurrilous attacks. It was left to Leo Cherne of the International Rescue Committee to rise to Marshall’s defense in a 1952 debate with McCarthy, in which he demolished the Senator’s arguments. In fact, Cherne’s passionate eloquence made even Murrow’s rebuke seem timid by comparison.

Wonder Boy

Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes, from a screenplay by Susannah Grant, based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner, succeeds in becoming more compelling than its accursed chick-lit credentials would at first suggest. I haven’t read Ms. Weiner’s novel, but Mr. Hanson is enough of an established auteur to be entitled to the benefit of the doubt (at least by me) even with material as ominous—or as seemingly dubious—as this. Also, there is no reason that a project like Good Night, and Good Luck, with its virtually all-male cast, is automatically more “important” than a film in which the three major characters are female. This is the tyranny of genres from which the French liberated us a long time ago. As it is, I would rank Mr. Clooney’s achievement as only slightly more accomplished—mostly because of its self-imposed limitations—than Mr. Hanson’s, though I would give the latter the edge for adventurousness, as well as for his film’s unexpected bursts of wit and humor.

The story centers on two temperamentally incompatible sisters who, nonetheless, end up needing each other desperately. The exposition is a bit laborious as Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz), an unemployed and virtually unemployable bitch on wheels, sponges off her fatter but successful sister Rose (Toni Collette), a lawyer. Ms. Collette was required to put on weight for the role, seemingly just so Maggie can call Rose a “fat pig” in a scene early in the film that leads to a temporary separation of the siblings. Ms. Collette reportedly wasn’t too happy with the weight requirement attached to her casting as Rose. No matter—even with the additional burden of an obtrusive pair of spectacles, Ms. Collette struck me as uncommonly attractive in a realistically unmovie-ish way.

By contrast, Ms. Diaz makes Maggie so bitchy and whorish that I was a little surprised that Mr. Hanson would let his not-untalented star go so far over the top, especially since he has gotten so many controlled and far more nuanced performances from actresses as varied as Elizabeth McGovern and Isabelle Huppert in The Bedroom Window (1987), Rebecca De Mornay and Annabella Sciorra in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), Meryl Streep in The River Wild (1994), Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997), and Frances McDormand and Katie Holmes in Wonder Boys (2000).

But then, none of Mr. Hanson’s previous films were as overloaded with back story as In Her Shoes, in which Maggie and Rose have a mother who committed suicide when they were small and a grandmother, Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), who was driven away from the children by their guilt-ridden father (Ken Howard). And you don’t even want to know about the coldly self-absorbed stepmother, Sydelle (Candice Azzara), who kicks Maggie out of the house in the first place so that she is forced to bunk with Rose, who feels responsible for her sister despite all her outrageous behavior. The breaking point occurs when Rose comes home to find Maggie in bed with Rose’s very first steady boyfriend (and the boss at her law firm), Jim Danvers (Richard Burgi).

Meanwhile, Maggie has discovered in her sneaky way—i.e., by rifling through other people’s possessions—that she and Rose have a grandmother alive and well in a Florida retirement community for “active seniors,” and so off she goes. We eventually discover that Maggie and Rose are actually the products of an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Philadelphia, which has struck some reviewers as sociologically unlikely in the extreme. Even more unlikely is the embarrassing fact that Maggie can barely read, as we learn when she fails an MTV audition as a weather-caster because she can’t read the cue cards fast enough.

The title of the film refers to Rose’s shoe-buying mania (because nothing else she does makes her feel good about herself) as well as Maggie’s habit of stealing and vandalizing these most prized objects among Rose’s possessions. Just as one has become weary of all of Maggie’s unprovoked aggressions against Rose, the two sisters are driven apart, Maggie settling in Florida with Ella (Shirley MacLaine), her level-headed grandmother, and Rose remaining in Philadelphia with a new boyfriend, Simon (Mark Feuerstein), and a new but unlikely job as a dog-walker after she resigns from her law firm. Certain realism-oriented reviewers have wondered how Rose could afford to make such an income-deflating career change, but let’s face it, guys and gals: Dogs are so much more charismatic than law briefs.

The point is that the movie gets much, much better as it goes along, with each sister achieving personal transformation through separation before finally being reunited for the heartwarmingly communal ending. The biggest change occurs in Maggie, as she adjusts generously to the sheer gutsiness of the survivors in the retirement community. Ms. MacLaine as Ella, Maggie’s grandmother, avoids the clichés of her role with a restrained characterization of subtlety and intelligence that lands just this side of old-folks cynicism. She virtually bribes Maggie to get a steady job at the facility by offering to match her salary out of her own savings.

One of the most moving demonstrations of the power of reading and teaching occurs when an aged, blind professor of English literature asks Maggie to read some poetry to him. When her first stumbling words reveal that she has suffered from dyslexia all her life and has been too ashamed to admit it, the professor encourages her to keep at it and tell him what she thinks the words mean. For the first time in her life, Maggie has been asked to think for herself, and she turns out to be amazingly perceptive. The professor gives her an A-plus, and Maggie is ecstatic over this first bit of adult approbation that she has ever received.

The poignancy of the scene is enhanced by the identity of the actor playing the professor: Norman Lloyd, now in his early 90’s, who will always be remembered as the Nazi spy who fell from the Statue of Liberty in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942). There is much more to say of his subsequent career as an actor and a producer, but his mere presence on the screen reminds us that Mr. Hanson began his career in the movies as the editor of Cinema Magazine before becoming a screenwriter in such films as Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978) and Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982)—estimable, underrated films with some of the same twists and turns that one finds in the films Mr. Hanson has subsequently directed himself. With In Her Shoes, he has the additional assistance of Brooke Smith as Amy, Rose’s only confidante; Jerry Adler as Lewis Feldman, the imperturbable senior aggressively courting Ella; and Francine Beers as Mrs. Lefkowitz, who delivers one of the funniest gallows-humor lines you will ever hear.

George Clooney’s Movie About TV Doesn’t Get Ike Right