Director: George Clooney
With: David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr.
George Clooney’s second directorial effort is an understated and unpretentious (if you disregard the slightly preachy beginning and end) black-and-white chamber piece– the action unfolds exclusively in the smoke-filled world of CBS Production Headquarters, New York– powered by a strong ensemble cast that comprises Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Alex Borstein and Clooney himself, in sympathetic little roles.
The plot? During a period filled with paranoia where the media is whipped to a frenzy by Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witchhunts, a small team of television broadcasters make a stand: for righteousness and decency in American society and government, and against hatred, prejudice and inopportunity.
The reason you should see it is David Strathairn’s lead performance as Edward R. Murrow, the public face of CBS’s series of shows, broadcast in the spring of 1953, questioning the methods of McCarthy’s pinko persecution. Arched back in his chair during broadcasts, his inevitable cigarette motionless and vertical in his left hand, Strathairn’s interpretation is at once imposing and subtle: his commanding voice and sharp features seem to belie a startling frailty, as if this wry and witty man constantly needs to withdraw into himself to keep his internal machine from overheating.
With several jazz-based intermissions and even some period advertisements added to the heap of genuine newscasts from the archives that are used throughout, the film works very much like a TV programme. The mood of the day is mostly conveyed through close-ups, the occasional tracking shot that conveys the hustle and bustle of the broadcasting beehive, and a slowly established, discreet long shot before the fadeout at the end of the working day.
I suppose you can accuse Clooney, who also wrote the script (with Grant Heslov), of laying it on a bit thick when we find out the reason that Clarkson’s and Downey Jr.’s characters hide the fact they’re married (to each other), after Murrow has been reminded by his boss that he, too, self-censors in the service of his own public image. Are some people more equal than others?
The characters are all upright and just, which is fair enough when confronted by borderline lunacy, but let us not forget that the senator catered to pre-existing fears in America. What is at stake is hinted at by a colleague’s suicide, but the only dramatic consequence is Murrow’s loss of his programme because of the risks he took. If that is worth mentioning, then what of the fact that he died of lung cancer aged fifty-seven?
“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home,” is Murrow’s dictum in the broadcast that marks the relatively early climax. This is a film which gets most things right, but isn’t quite the dramatic statement it clearly wants to be.