Film Studies: George is talking sense - but is anyone listening?

The film is set in the age of Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin, the demagogue with the sleepy eyes who hit on the game that there were so many card-carrying Communists in the State Department, at The New York Times or under your bed. In modern history, by which I mean the age of television, McCarthy was the first man who reckoned to change reality if he told enough lies in a sufficiently actorly way. He has had followers.

Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and Edward R Murrow (David Strathairn) work for CBS television in the sacred news department, and they feel the need to confront McCarthyism. They have waited for the feeble Congress and a jittery president (Eisenhower) to disown the man from Wisconsin. But his reckless power is growing - careers in the media were destroyed; academia was rife with Cold War paranoia; the "security" of the nation (albeit the most powerful in the world) was said to be in such jeopardy that civil rights might be restricted.

All of this really happened. Murrow - who had made his name first in radio, with commentaries from London during the Blitz - was a Lincolnian figure. Friendly was his producer. Their CBS was then the best network on television and it was headed by William Paley (Frank Langella) who led the way in television entertainment, who believed in news and who trusted Murrow up to a point.

It's a very simple story, told with tight-lipped economy. These TV people have no private lives to distract us. And the picture is shot in black and white just because its great coup is to cast Joseph McCarthy as himself. McCarthy and Murrow never met. They were faces on each other's screen. And since McCarthy lived and died by television, it is entirely proper to use the old kinescopes of his hearings. Indeed, he built his fame as a bully on TV, and he died there in the celebrated Army vs McCarthy hearings when a great lawyer, Joseph N Welch, asked him in front of the nation whether he had no decency left. At last the nation got the point, just as if McCarthy had been played by some actor like Broderick Crawford as shambling, sweating and incoherent.

This is the moment to ask those critics who didn't quite get George Clooney's debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), to stay after school and see it again. Confessions was also a film about television in that it dealt with Chuck Barris, the brilliant inventor of silly game shows, and a man who said he was working for the CIA. It is the more inventive film, one in which levels of reality struggle for supremacy. Good Night, and Good Luck is remorselessly simple, yet it is inspired by how far television is now the camp fire at which our tribe gathers to stay warm.

Still, you have to watch Good Night very closely to see how its sliding camera and its sudden cuts do marvels to create the feeling of paranoia. No one knows at this CBS who can be trusted and who not. There are secrets within secrets; there are fears about job security and holding back panic. The portrait of William Paley is essential to this: he is smart, brilliant even, and a liberal at heart. But he has reached that point where the good of the business is close to smothering the good of the good. Yes, it's a film with heroes and villains, and inescapable connotations for 2005 no matter that no link is underlined. But if we had a president who watched television, or movies - this is what he deserves. Of course, his advisers don't allow such things. They prefer to keep him in the dark. And so the dark spreads. Good night - and good luck.

'Good Luck, and Good Night' closes the London Film Festival, 7pm, 3 November, www.lff.org.uk, 020 7928 3232

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