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In memory of a dark moment

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In a time when the current administration pays off purported journalists to report their version of the news, when a right-wing homophobic homosexual prostitute (think about that one for a minute) enjoys rare access, under an alias, to White House press conferences, and even most of the actual reporters simply practice a higher form of stenography, George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck provides a salutary and necessary lesson.

The movie chronicles some months in the 1950s, that much maligned decade, when electronic journalism, then in its infancy, employed some intelligent and intrepid reporters and editors --- yes, they really existed --- who pursued their profession in a climate of fear and coercion. If the situation sounds familiar, it should: If the shoe pinches, wear it.

The film shows the news division of CBS television, led by the legendary Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) confronting Senator Joseph McCarthy, his bullying falsehoods, and the atmosphere of intimidation he created, the construct that came to be known as McCarthyism. Under the shadow of the infamous blacklist, Murrow and his colleagues determine to expose the Senator, who manipulated the Cold War hysteria of the American public, never noted for any particular bravery, by throwing mendacious accusations of Communist influence at any easy target he could find.

Murrow's decision required considerable courage in a time when the McCarthyite smears threatened the jobs and careers of innumerable workers in radio, television, theater, and motion pictures, employers demanded loyalty oaths, and craven informers happily denounced innocent people to settle old scores or save their own skins. The film shows not only some of the damage McCarthy inflicted on particular individuals, but also the difficulties of mounting any sort of defense against his demagoguery. Murrow must persuade his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney) and battle the head of CBS, William Paley (Frank Langella) for permission to take on the senator; to their credit, both men, despite misgivings, backed his efforts.

Murrow devoted his program, See It Now, to an exposé of McCarthy's statements and methods, in particular a story about an Air Force officer dismissed because a family member read a leftist publication. The show of course provoked the bully's wrath, and he mounted a counterattack, claiming on television among other lies that the reporter was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the anarchist union, and a pawn of the Soviets.

Instead of using an actor to portray McCarthy, Clooney simply and wisely shows his actual TV appearance, so that viewers can see for themselves the menacing manner, the large, heavy head, the deep, hollow voice always verging on a bellow, the raging bully in full rant.

Clooney shoots the film in stark black and white, often using oblique angles and tight closeups, which at times imitate the characteristic techniques of film noir, and at others recall the grainy appearance of live newscasts on the uncolored television screens of the 1950s. The method also underlines the documentary look of Good Night, and Good Luck, in which actors play identifiable people from a recorded past, and their actions repeat the events of history.

David Strathairn's portrayal of Edward R. Murrow naturally dominates a picture that also serves as a character study of the man who became one of the icons of news reporting. Famous for his remarkable radio broadcasts from the London during the blitz, Murrow established himself as a major figure in the new medium of television. Handsome, elegant, charismatic, with a distinctive voice and delivery, he helped create some of the style of investigative reporting and advocacy journalism that occasionally still distinguishes television news.

Strathairn convincingly imitates the mellow voice and the faintly arrhythmic speech patterns, with the idiosyncratic pauses and inflections. Whether accurately or not, he also plays the man as deadly serious all the time, with barely a hint of lightness or humor, which makes the movie appropriately intense, but also rather grim.

More important, although some of its stories remain untold, Good Night, and Good Luck reminds us all of a dark and troubled moment in the past when an embattled medium was blessed with talented people with the courage to defend freedom and dissent against the lies and threats of cowardly demagogues.

Good Night, and Good Luck (PG) directed by George Clooney, is playing at The Little Theatres and Pittsford Plaza Cinema.

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