Against the shades-of-gray backdrop of television studios, elevators, bars and sober suits, smoke spirals ominously through the biopic Good Night, and Good Luck.
The smoke, and the countless cigarettes it emanates from, animate the anger that glows within Edward R. Murrow, as played by David Strathairn. As the legendary CBS newscaster challenges Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunt, the cigarettes become an extension of his laconic determination in the face of mass hysteria. Never has chain-smoking appeared so noble - or eloquent.
Other films have used cigarettes and the accouterments of smoking to set the tone and establish motives. Witness that gold cigarette case in Sunset Boulevard, the star-struck cigarette girl in Radio Days, the serial smoking in Reservoir Dogs.
But in Good Night, it is almost as if Murrow and his cigarettes perform a 90-minute pas de deux. A cigarette idles between his fingers. Murrow picks a speck of tobacco from his teeth. After a final puff, he tosses a butt decisively before facing a sea of admirers. On air, cigarette smoke makes a hazy counterpoint to his straightforward prose. Much more than a prop, Murrow's cigarette is a character that amplifies his own. Straithairn has said as much in interviews.
Director George Clooney, who also plays a cigarette-smoking Fred Friendly, includes a nod to hypocrisy with the replay of a vintage Kent cigarette ad. The commercial endorsement is testament that Murrow was a hero, but no saint. The Red Scare was real in 1954, but the ravages of tobacco were scarcely acknowledged. A champion of freedom and a slave to nicotine, Murrow died of lung cancer at age 57.
Murrow's newsroom chums also smoke through Good Night like righteous chimneys. Clooney, as Friendly, reverently lights cigarettes for Murrow. Together, the men throw up a literal smokescreen, behind which they do battle. It's an illusory screen, as evidenced by the fate of news host Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who goes up in smoke.
By the film's conclusion, viewers, as well, may feel as if they have been enveloped in a shroud of secondhand smoke that nevertheless leaves them as vulnerable as Murrow and his cadre to the fear-mongering and personal attacks of demagogues and their minions.
Sun movie critic Michael Sragow contributed to this article.