CAST: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Ray Wise, Robert John Burke, Tate Donovan, Matt Ross, Alex Borstein, David Christian, Thomas McCarthy, Glenn Morshower, Reed Diamond, Simon Helberg

DIRECTOR: George Clooney

WRITERS: George Clooney and Grant Heslov

During the fifties, Joseph R. McCarthy saw more subversives creeping around the corners of America than even John Ashcroft did in more recent times. What’s more, the bellowing senator from Wisconsin bested the achingly pious attorney general from Missouri when it came to sinful fabrication, twisting of facts, and savage destruction of careers and lives.

Thanks to a seamless mix of brief but crucial archival footage and compelling re-enactments of real-life events, proof of McCarthy’s flair for verbal terrorism is now brought chillingly back to life in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Shot in potent, atmospheric black-and-white, the movie brilliantly evokes the hysteria, hypocrisy, and paranoia-parading-as-patriotism that permeated the initial phase of the Cold War. Present and accounted for, too, are the occasional acts of valor that helped save the U. S. from sinking totally into a quagmire of cowardice and fear. It’s painfully easy to spot parallels between then and now, which is one reason this bio-drama pulsates with the energy of an urgent, you-are-there documentary.

The subject matter of “Good Night, and Good Luck”--a nation pressured by a powerful demagogue to the point of betraying its democratic ideals; the unexpected heroism of an egghead journalist during the infancy of TV News; the attempts by government representatives and network sponsors to intimidate that journalist (Edward R. Murrow, whose CBS show “See It Now” was largely responsible for demolishing McCarthy)--is dauntingly complex and intellectually demanding. Surely, it would take a seasoned, deadly serious director to tackle it. But evidently nobody cautioned famously playful superstar George Clooney (whose only other directorial gig was the little-seen “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” in 2002) to think twice before plunging into deep water.

And that’s fortunate for us. Clooney, as it turns out, has a mind of his own, and it’s not dangerous at all--it is in fact deft, probing, mature and innovative. The story of Murrow’s determination, at the peak of the witch hunts in 1954, to air the whole truth about the McCarthy menace is told by Clooney and his co-screenwriter, Grant Heslov, with astonishing immediacy, suspense, horror and even humor (Murrow’s interview with Liberace--conducted in an attempt to boost his own Nielsen ratings--is an out-and-out hoot as the pianist gushes about his hopes of finding just the right woman to be his wife).

The swift, nuanced, resonant manner in which Clooney balances the disparate elements of this major chapter of our sometimes shameful history establishes him as one of the new century’s top directors. And he can take special pride in his ability to draw pitch-perfect performances from a richly varied cast. David Strathairn (pictured above), as the cerebral, enigmatic Edward R. Murrow, takes command of every scene he is in--which is nearly every scene in the film--with his subtle intensity. If he does not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor of 2005, it will be an outrage.

Among those lending Strathairn spendid support are Clooney, playing producer Fred Friendly; Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise and Jeff Daniels as Murrow’s stressed colleagues at CBS; and, in a scary portrait of a monumentally powerful media mogul, the extraordinary Frank Langella as Murrow’s boss, William Paley.

With “Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney and company have given us a great night at the movies.