George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck is a ravishingly handsome piece of work. Shot in silky black and white, it conjures a mid-1950s America of sombre suits, tie-clips, pomaded hair, melancholy jazz, clacking typewriters, late-night Scotch and cigarette smoke curling romantically through the air. It would be hard not to look stylish in this monochrome dream of pre-digital elegance. There's also something heroic about Clooney's undertaking: he believes in the importance of reconnecting audiences to a convulsive period of recent American history, when questions of integrity and honesty in public life were being debated as if they really mattered.
It is a story that offers old-fashioned (but timeless) lessons in truth-telling and tolerance. The CBS news broadcaster Edward R Murrow, who made his name in radio via commentaries from London during the Blitz, was an American icon of probity and sanity at a time when his country needed one most. The Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy was whipping the nation into a frenzy of paranoia with his hysterical witch-hunt of communists, people who associated with communists, and people who remembered going to a public meeting years back where a communist happened to be. McCarthy reckoned the "security" of the country was at risk, and ordinary people were losing their livelihoods if the slightest taint of red was suspected.
Murrow (played by David Strathairn) finally takes a stand against McCarthyite bullying on his news documentary show, See It Now. Backed by his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) and their team of trusty reporters, he runs a story about a navy pilot who has been dismissed from his job without trial; communist leanings have been cited but not proven. By investigating a particular case Murrow highlights the general atmosphere of guilt by suspicion, and by putting it on television he adopts a classic strategy: the best weapons are those you take from your enemy. McCarthy had nurtured his fame through TV, presenting himself as the face of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, and it's a vanity that the makers of Good Night, and Good Luck have exploited: why cast someone as McCarthy when you have footage of the real thing? The pilot story airs, and America begins waking up to the madness of the Witchfinder General.
Eager to convey the gravity of this Great Moment in Broadcasting, the film has a CBS bigwig (Jeff Daniels) getting antsy about the negative impact that Murrow's show will have on advertising revenue, and even the network boss William Paley (Frank Langella), liberal that he is, eventually considers the benefits of pulling the plug on his star. With McCarthy girding himself to respond to Murrow on television, we have arrived, it seems, at a turning-point in the conflict between the state and the media.
Clooney and co have done, as I say, a handsome and heroic job of reconstructing it - but it grieves me also to say that this doesn't make for an especially satisfying movie. The problem isn't (or isn't just) that a bunch of men who sit around and argue is cinematically inert; a few years back a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days, followed the same behind-closed-doors scenario and turned it into a thriller.
Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov look for the same jangled energy in the CBS backrooms, and let the actors talk over one another in the heated, on-the-hoof style of news journalists, a breed never knowingly shy of offering an opinion. But while their rapid-fire talk sounds authentic, it also registers as a massive self-congratulatory group- hug. Strathairn, with his aquiline profile and awesome precision of language, does cut an impressive figure as Murrow, but to see his lieutenants gaze at him as he delivers his broadcasts you'd think they were in the presence of Moses himself. And, while the film purports to be about the dread and doubt afflicting America during 1953-54, inside CBS they're sitting pretty under the superhero shield of Murrow's righteousness. The suicide of one of his colleagues supposedly indicates the pressures involved in resisting the forces of darkness; we have to suppose, because we are told practically nothing else about the unfortunate man.
Of course, there are resonances here for our own times. It is also a movie about the conflicting obligations of television, on the one hand a medium designed to entertain and distract, on the other an instrument capable of instructing people in good citizenship, and of presenting news uncontaminated by government influence. Of this latter duty, Good Night, and Good Luck makes an unarguable defence. But such defences don't necessarily lead to great drama: if all your characters are, to some degree, straight-arrows for justice, what chance is there of moral interest or suspense? When, late on, we see footage of the lawyer Joseph N Welch taking on McCarthy and asking him, magnificently, whether he had any "decency" left, the spectacle of an arch-bully being toppled is very stirring. But that's history's moment, not this story's.
The film needs an ending of its own. Murrow and Friendly discover that no good deed goes unpunished when CBS decides to move their pioneering show from its weekly slot to a Sunday: See It Now has rocked the boat long enough, and the network must go back to appeasing its sponsors. Demoted to Sundays: as a dramatic climax this lacks punch. It's a problem for the movie, and no mistake.
In one way, I would like nothing more than for people to see Good Night, and Good Luck, digest its impeccable liberal values and delight in its smoky black-and-white loveliness. Then again, I couldn't hold my thumbs aloft to something this self-regarding, complacent and flat.