News reporting sure was hazardous to your health in the 1950s. For starters, if you were a crusading journalist like Edward R. Murrow (Strathairn), the act of confronting the day's anti-Red hysteria could bring you to the brink of unemployment. (No one likes an unhappy sponsor.) If you were tortured CBS anchor Don Hollenbeck (Wise), Joseph McCarthy's ferocious attacks could drive you to drink or worse. And if you were just some poor schmuck even remotely near the newsroom, the constant consumption of cigarettes could send you into a secondhand lung collapse.
Still, the scene had its thrills; as presented in George Clooney's microdetailed, b&w drama, his second effort behind the camera, the historical moment comes off as an oasis of unflinching journalistic toughness—it's a spirit that's sure to thrill anyone who holds our current news media in disdain. The movie's strength is its openheartedness, particularly during its showdown between Strathairn's Murrow (a heroically severe performance) and the actual kinescope clips of McCarthy, who appeared on TV to defend himself. In these heady exchanges, the level of public discourse are thrilling.
Elsewhere, the film suffers a needless subplot regarding a secret office romance, intended to paint CBS as meddlesome in its own way. But the idea is misguided; more effective is Frank Langella's tremendous turn as network president Bill Paley, tough but never censorious. Our current execs might try to be so fair.—Joshua Rothkopf