''Good Night, and Good Luck" is a puzzle: a hermetically sealed period piece so intensely relevant to our current state of affairs that it takes your breath away.
Directed and co-written by George Clooney, it also removes any doubt that the former Dr. Doug Ross of TV's ''ER" is a filmmaker of uncommon thoughtfulness and skill. Formal problems aside, ''Good Night" is a call to civic responsibility and renewed purpose in broadcast journalism that demands to be seen and discussed by audiences of all ages and political stripes. It's that important.
That maddening, too. The story of TV newsman Edward R. Murrow's 1954 decision to take on Senator Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch hunt, on the air and using just the facts, has been turned into a small, hard diamond of black-and-white polemic. Clooney and his co-writer, Grant Heslov (who appears in a small role), hunker down with Murrow's crew in CBS's Manhattan headquarters and rarely leave the building. The camera hovers and ducks in close, past the omnipresent cigarette smoke of Murrow (David Strathairn) and into the inner sanctum of avid young men -- and they are, pointedly, almost all men -- creating the infant medium of TV news on the spot.
What we see of the outside world is what they saw: footage. There is no actor playing McCarthy, and when Murrow invites the senator in for an on-air rebuttal, it's the real Joe McCarthy we see, delivering his actual televised response. At one point, Clooney cedes directorial control to a long, undigested chunk of congressional testimony from Annie Lee Moss, an elderly African-American woman who worked in the Pentagon basement and was accused by the senator of being a communist. She has never heard of this Karl Marx fellow, but McCarthy and his wing man, Roy Cohn, press absurdly on.
Murrow played this footage on air, too, but was careful to state that neither he nor CBS had evidence of Moss's actual political beliefs (which in fact turned out to be more complex than she admitted). Clooney uses it as a straight-up bid for audience sympathy, and it's one of the rare missteps in ''Good Night, and Good Luck." Another is the inclusion of what appears to be a CBS in-house jazz combo, anchored by singer Dianne Reeves, that provides the smoky, late-night musical score. A touch of whimsy, it cuts against the grain of rigorous realism the movie works so hard to establish elsewhere.
Much more often, this is a film of fierce and uncompromising ideas given human dimension by a terrific cast, all of whom play it smart, taut, tight. Clooney and Heslov's script errs on the side of sanctification -- McCarthy's public slide had begun well before CBS took the plunge -- but in the playing Strathairn's Murrow is a man of unemotional gravitas who simply has had enough. When the legendary newsman decides to use his flagship program ''See It Now" to make a case for Air Force Lieutenant Milo Radulovich after the latter is frog-marched out of the armed forces because his immigrant father reads a Serbian newspaper, it's a dangerous event.
Clooney casts himself as Fred Friendly, ''See It Now" producer and easygoing good cop to Murrow's Sergeant Joe Friday; the performance needs to be ingratiating and intelligent, and it's both of those things. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson provide further warmth as Joe and Shirley Wershba -- secretly wed despite the network's ban on married couples -- while Jeff Daniels plays producer Sid Mickelson as a man waiting with hope and dread to see what Murrow will do next. As newsman Don Hollenbeck, who committed suicide in 1954 under pressure from McCarthyite forces in the press, Ray Wise trembles rather too heavily with oncoming martyrdom.
But this is a beautifully professional movie about professionals coming to appreciate the full measure of their duty, as journalists and as Americans. Early in ''Good Night, and Good Luck" -- the title comes from Murrow's on-air sign-off -- a loyalty oath floats around the CBS offices, but the newsman doesn't blink. ''We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," he tells the viewing public. ''We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home."
Ouch. As if this weren't a sharp enough jab in the side of 21st century broadcast journalism, addicted to ratings and terrified to take a stand (except for Fox News, which is all stand, all the time), Clooney opens and closes ''Good Night" with bits of the 1958 industry dinner speech in which Murrow correctly foresaw and mourned the future of his medium.
''We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent," he tells his uneasy audience of movers and shakers. ''We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late."
Hell of a speech, and the full text is online if you care to look it up. It's tacked awkwardly on to the rest of the movie, but you don't mind, because the faults of ''Good Night, and Good Luck" are faults of commitment. Clooney understands you can sometimes see more inside the TV fishbowl looking out than the other way around. He also knows there are far worse things than holding Ed Murrow up to modern audiences and asking them to emulate his horse sense and innate fairness.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.