George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. is about Edward R. Murrow's 9 March 1954 episode of the CBS news-magazine program See It Now, "A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy." (Click here to read the transcript of the broadcast.) In that program, host Murrow challenged McCarthy simply by introducing clips of the junior Senator from Wisconsin and letting them play. Murrow then ended the program with commentary, but the basic idea was to use the Senator's own words against him, implicitly. McCarthy was then allowed a rebuttal on the 6 April 1954 episode of See It Now.
Good Night, and Good Luck. shows the CBS newsroom as altogether a tense place because of the political climate supposedly created by McCarthy. Staffmembers have been asked to sign loyalty oaths (one person amusingly asks if that means loyalty to CBS), and no one is allowed to work on the McCarthy story who has had even a glancing connection to a Communist organization. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his producer Fred W. Friendly (George Clooney) have to sell the subject matter and approach to CBS head William S. Paley (Frank Langella), who isn't impressed by the urgency that Murrow and Friendly see in the situation. Paley believes that business has to come first; Murrow and Friendly believe that news should come before business, and that journalistic neutrality is no longer appropriate. Their 20 October 1953 episode of See It Now, which questioned the cashiering of Lt. Milo Radulovich from the Air Force Reserve because of his father's and sister's alleged radical beliefs, had got Radulovich reinstated. Murrow and Friendly would like their broadcast on McCarthy to be equally effective.
All of which makes Good Night, and Good Luck. the most sedentary chivalric romance in movie history. Murrow is shown to take McCarthy down simply by letting the man speak for himself, while Murrow looks on, chain-smoking. Murrow is also among the weariest of knights. The movie takes its title from Murrow's sign-off to his broadcasts, and the way Strathairn delivers it, it's like the last gasp of air escaping from a balloon. The crusade against McCarthy itself is weary-making for the CBS newsroom, in part because it seems so obvious to them that they're right. They shouldn't have to fight their bosses, risk losing their jobs, and who knows what other persecution, just to make people aware of what anyone can see by watching and listening.
In essence the movie is all a lead-up to the moral and intellectual tourney between a white knight and a black knight. It's not more substantial than the average heroic romance because its attitude toward McCarthy is no more than what you'd expect out of Hollywood—the standard misconstruction. Clooney, who directed from a script he co-wrote with Grant Heslov, makes the mistake here of accepting McCarthy's assertion of his own significance. In the first place, as historian John Earl Haynes points out in "An Essay on Historical Writing on Domestic Communism and Anti-Communism":
[In] McCarthy's hands, anticommunism was a partisan weapon used to implicate the New Deal, liberals, and the Democratic Party in treason. Using evidence that was exaggerated, distorted, and in some cases utterly false, [McCarthy] accused hundreds of individuals of Communist activity, recklessly mixing the innocent with the assuredly guilty when it served his political purposes.
McCarthy's weapon was anti-communism, but his target was the Democratic Party, entrenched in power since the New Deal.