- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” the new historical film directed, co-written and co-starring George Clooney, recalls the circumstances behind Edward R. Murrow’s decision to devote an episode of his pioneering public affairs broadcast “See It Now” to a withering critique of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy.

Those curious to learn more about this fascinating confrontation will find no shortage of biographies and histories available to enlarge their knowledge. Any one of those is likely to diminish the movie itself as a source of period evocation and factual illumination.

Perhaps the handiest place to begin when seeking vintage documentation is a four-disc DVD set called “The Edward R. Murrow Collection.” The first disc, “This Reporter,” revives a two-part biographical tribute to Mr. Murrow originally telecast on the PBS series “American Masters.” The most appealing of the volumes in human-interest terms, it hits all the professional highlights while sharing invaluable testimony from colleagues and family members, many now deceased. It’s the right place to acquire a detailed summary of Mr. Murrow’s career at CBS, which began in 1935 and initially crested with his radio broadcasts as a war correspondent in Europe during World War II.

A distinctive, compelling voice from battle fronts, Mr. Murrow spent a restless interval as a news executive after the war. He enjoyed the trust and friendship of network Chairman William S. Paley, who inspires the most impressive single performance in Mr. Clooney’s movie, courtesy of Frank Langella.

A Murrow plea to return to on-air employment was granted. He was both a New York newscasting fixture and an esteemed national personality. “See It Now,” which began in 1951, marked his reluctant transition to the new pictorial medium and was an outgrowth of a similar radio show called “Hear It Now.” His production partner, Fred W. Friendly, portrayed in “Good Night” by Mr. Clooney, also shared responsibility for the TV program.

The host referred to them as “co-editors” when editorializing from his perch, the control room of the studio where the show was telecast. The director, a young Don Hewitt, is within camera range and addressed by name on the debut installment. Among other clever innovations, “See It Now” invited the audience into the production sanctum. The show itself was summarized as “a document for television based on the week’s news.”

The second disc in the collection is devoted to highlights from the “See It Now” inventory. The Murrow reports from Korea at Christmas of 1952 and from flood-threatened towns along the Missouri River may seem exceptionally stirring at the moment. Eventually, “See It Now” was reincarnated as an hourlong documentary series, “CBS Reports.” The most famous installment, a 1960 expose of migrant labor titled “Harvest of Shame,” is preserved on the final disc of the set.

The third disc is devoted to the events that attracted Mr. Clooney and his colleagues. Called “The McCarthy Years,” it consists of five “See It Now” programs about the controversies triggered by government investigating committees preoccupied with evidence or accusations of communist subversion.

Mr. Murrow’s case against Sen. McCarthy’s tactics as chairman of a government operations committee is the second of these programs, telecast on March 9, 1954. The senator’s rejoinder, filmed about a month later, is the fourth.

Having promised his adversary a half-hour without contradiction, Mr. Murrow returned a week later for a final say. This generosity has not been echoed by “Good Night,” which confines its dramatic interest to the Murrow camp and observes the senator only in brief archival inserts.

It’s difficult to believe that sloughing off the senator was a smart choice. “See It Now” made a stronger case against its target by showing him in numerous unflattering moments. Moreover, it appears that the March 9 brief may have been less decisively damaging than Mr. McCarthy’s solo appearance a few weeks later.

Alternately snide and pedantic, the senator is not in good form as a self-advocate. He does not appear to be in good health (he wasn’t, as a matter of fact) while trying to discredit Mr. Murrow or plod through a tutorial on communism. The final impression is one of haphazard rehearsal and alarming weariness. It was ridiculous to deny some actor the chance to play this combative personality on the ropes.

David Strathairn’s performance as Edward R. Murrow won a best acting award at the Venice Film Festival. Maybe it was the pick of the competition, but its shortcomings seem better defined after a session with the DVD collection.

Two actors, both deceased, come to mind if you watch a good deal of Mr. Murrow: Humphrey Bogart and Jason Robards. It’s partly the ever-present cigarette in the case of Mr. Bogart and the long, sardonic visage in the case of Mr. Robards. But it’s also a mutual temperamental gravity. Mr. Strathairn is an admirable character actor. He just isn’t in possession of the kind of lived-in, gallantly disillusioned face that distinguished Edward R. Murrow.

TITLE: “The Edward R. Murrow Collection”

CONTENT: Four-disc DVD set about the career of the famous broadcaster.

RUNNING TIME: About 400 minutes



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