In the best American film about telling the truth under pressure since The Insider, George Clooney proves here that he’s not just another celebrity who fancies himself a director. He’s in the early stages of what looks like a very impressive career, and he’s obviously learned a lot about what goes on behind the cameras of great films.

Good Night and Good Luck is a tightly constructed, efficient film that knows exactly what it wants to be and do, and it does it impressively.

It is, in a way, a horror movie.

As Edward R. Murrow and his CBS news team decide to take the evidence they have and broadcast challenges to Senator Joe McCarthy’s disturbing hunt for communists, they are “beset on all sides” (as Jules would say) by attempts to intimidate them and endeavors to destroy their investigation. “The terror is here in this room,” Murrow says to his associates (played by fine actors including Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., and Ray “Laura Palmer’s Dad” Wise.)

And you can feel that terror. It’s like watching one of the Aliens movies… you just keep waiting for that sinister beast to come bursting out of somebody’s chest, or through somebody’s television, or through some newsman’s microphone, to silence him before the truth gets out. (That’s also the theme of The Constant Gardener and Serenity, by the way. Seems to be the prevalent theme of this big screen year.)

Here, Clooney gives David Strathairn the best role he’s ever had to play, and he’ll be on the short list for Oscar nominations… or should be. I’ve loved Strathairn since director John Sayles began insisting upon his greatness in film after film, and in 1992, Strathairn starred in several of the year’s memorable films (Passion Fish, Bob Roberts, A League of Their Own, Sneakers). My favorite performance of his came in Sayle’s underrated drama Limbo, where he played a fisherman haunted by an accident at sea years before. Here, he plays a man whose meticulous care about “getting the facts straight” is reflected in his meticulously professional appearance and clinical delivery of bold news reports. As the pressure heats up, you watch the engines of his head kick into high gear, even though he remains studious and focused. It’s all in the eyes, which seem to be scanning newsprint at all times, weighing the odds against them, weighing the risks, weighing the cost of such truth-telling. If you were going into a war, you’d want a guy like that as your commander.

When I write my full review, I’m not going to be able to get through it without many references to The Insider–the two films would make a knockout double feature. Both are about telling the truth, but also about the danger of having news reports influenced by corporate interests.(Peter Chattaway pointed out that one of the characters, Don Hewitt, is in both films–Don Hewitt of CBS News was a young man during the events of this film, an old man during the tobacco scandal of Michael Mann’s film.)

But I also want to point out that Good Night and Good Luck isn’t so much a work of imagination as it is a “historical re-enactment”… a document to remind us of our own recent history. Clooney does a good job of keeping us focused on a piece of history without steering it too obviously as a commentary on current events. Thus, the film is going to last.

But I wonder if it’s almost too narrowly focused. The 90 minutes fly past, and I don’t exactly find myself wanting more, but my friend Danny Walter, an aspiring screenwriter himself, pointed out that an awful lot of the movie was spent showing historical footage or recreations of historical events surrounding the McCarthy hearings, and he wanted something more… more storytelling, I guess. This is the opposite of an Oliver Stone movie about history. There are no colorful characters or compelling subplots. We get the feeling that these newspeople distinguished themselves by doing the job, the whole job, and nothing but the job. And that rings true. The buzzing mayhem of those offices echo the choreography in an emergency room… an interesting dynamic, considering Clooney’s history with “E.R.”

Still, this is easily one of the best times I’ve had in a theater this year, and I won’t flinch if it gets Oscar attention. At the same time, I’m also going to be watching to see what journalists who are familiar with the McCarthy hearings say about its accuracy in representing those events, since I’m ashamed at how little I know about what really went on there.

Here’s a story from NPR’s Daniel Schorr, who was around during these events and remembers them clearly. He’s impressed with Clooney’s work.

(Thanks, Darrel Manson, for the link to the NPR story.)

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