Red scare: Murrow story sounds familiar

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.... We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

That's not a modern-day criticism of the Patriot Act (though if the shoe fits...), but something said March 9, 1954, by Edward R. Murrow, one of the last journalists America trusted, in condemning the tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist witch hunt ruined hundreds of lives and careers with accusations based on the flimsiest of evidence.

Good Night, and Good Luck (the title was Murrow's standard signoff) is a brilliant docudrama that reinforces George Clooney's bid (after his directing debut with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, about The Gong Show's Chuck Barris) to someday be Program Director of TV Land.

Like a small-scale version of The Insider, which illustrated how much CBS's integrity had waned in four decades, Good Night, and Good Luck shows how the network created and weathered a crisis of conscience and confidence. The issues involved are as different as Insider's appropriate color photography vs. Good Night's black-and-white, which perfectly captures the era (if done only to facilitate the seamless insertion of archival footage).

The color Clooney and co-writer, producer Grant Heslov, are concerned with is red, the symbol for the communists McCarthy claimed to be flushing out of the political and entertainment worlds in the fearful Cold War period. Because the junior senator from Wisconsin could smear anyone without having to back it up, most of the media feared retaliation if they opposed him. Murrow was the rare exception.

Flashing back from a 1958 tribute dinner at which Murrow (David Strathairn) speaks of the need for television to inform people rather than merely serving as an avenue of escape from reality, the film proper begins in October 1953.

Against a frantic background much like that of Broadcast News, but more primitive, Murrow and his team prepare a "See It Now" program about the case of an Air Force Reserve lieutenant who's been discharged as a "security risk" because his father and sister may have had subversive ties. The evidence against him is kept sealed.

Murrow believed then, as some do today, we shouldn't have to sacrifice our civil liberties in the interest of "security." With the hesitant support of network head William Paley (Frank Langella) and the opposition of bottom line-focused number-two Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels), Murrow prepares a show for March 9, 1954, that will let carefully chosen clips of McCarthy at work expose his heinous methods.

McCarthy's rebuttal, a month later, offers virtually no defense but attacks Murrow as a communist sympathizer who was "on the Soviet payroll in 1935." The Senate begins an investigation of McCarthy that ends his reign of terror.

While involved in this serious enterprise, Murrow also did the more popular celebrity interview show Person to Person. In a classic clip from that show he visits Liberace at the Sherman Oaks home he shares with his mother.

"Have you given any thought to getting married?" Murrow asks the obviously- but not openly- gay entertainer, evoking a response that's predictable but carefully worded: "I hope someday to find the perfect mate."

Murrow's supportive support staff includes his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), and Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) and Joe (Robert Downey Jr.), whose relationship is gradually revealed in the screenplay's silliest aspect. It's better when it sticks to journalism and politics.

For period atmosphere, Clooney would have been justified in using recordings by his Aunt Rosemary, who dominated the charts at the time. Instead he's got Dianne Reeves providing pleasant musical interludes as an Ella Fitzgerald type.

Although a postmortem scene is made to look like it occurred a year before it did, for the most part Clooney and company can echo the words of Murrow in a broadcast: "We got our facts right, and it was brief."

Good Night, and Good Luck is a natural to be studied in journalism classes until the end of time, but it also provides a great blend of entertainment and information for those who are too young to remember the era and those old enough to have forgotten it. Hey, that's just about everybody!