George Clooney could have made life so much easier for himself. He is, after all, a bona fide heart-throb, a man who, along with Brad Pitt, a glass of Lambrini and a Cadbury's Flake, belongs to the fantasies of women's-magazine world. Nobody would have complained if he had spun out his career playing handsome doctors on ER, throwing in an occasional Batman and Robin or Ocean's Eleven just to rev up his alpha-male image like a big symbolic motorbike. Yet Clooney is clearly a man with more serious things on his mind. His McCarthy-era drama Good Night, and Good Luck is the first of two politically orientated films involving the actor to be released within a month - the blood-for-oil thriller Syriana is next - and it's the one where he puts his neck on the block, starring, co-writing and directing.
When Hollywood stars flash their consciences instead of their teeth, the result is often embarrassment - Sean Penn's unfortunate peace activism springs to mind. Yet Clooney manages to pull it off. To paraphrase James Thurber, behind those big brown eyes his mind is anything but tiny.
Boasting six Oscar nominations, Good Night, and Good Luck is everything Hollywood normally isn't - black and white, intimate, compact, cheap. Clooney has admitted he put up his house as col- lateral to get it made, and while he's obviously not talking about a two-bed semi in Stoke, this illustrates both the film's personal scale and the commitment that drives it. The film starts in 1958, at one of those "salute to" dinners that the media and entertainment industries find so compelling. British audiences might not instantly recognise Edward R Murrow (David Strathairn), the subject of the tribute, but as soon as he starts his keynote speech about television's responsibilities, it's clear what kind of a man he is. Troubled by the advent of quiz-show culture, he argues that television needs to do more than entertain, otherwise it's merely "wires and lights in a box".
Murrow, a legendary newsman who anchored the landmark CBS show See It Now, was among those brave enough to fight Senator Joseph McCarthy as his witch trials blazed. Together with a team that included the producer Fred Friendly (an understated Clooney) and the reporter Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr), he overcame both corporate resistance and creeping paranoia to make a programme examining McCarthy's tactics - a choice that jeopardised the livelihoods of all involved. At the staff meeting where they decide to make the film, each man racks his brains for any indiscretion or encounter that could be painted red and used against him. You are never in doubt as to how high the stakes are.
Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov (who also plays the reporter Don Hewitt) have used original footage showing McCarthy at work - a clever choice, as the senator for Wisconsin, a thin-lipped proto-Voldemort, is quite dramatic enough in the flesh. Compared with Strathairn, McCar-thy is an unsteady presence, following his own crooked internal logic to the edge of reason. It is no coincidence that Clooney's father was a news anchor; the film paints an entirely believable picture of the way this generation of reporters functioned, revelling in the brave new world of television broadcasting. It is wonderfully atmospheric, the black and white offering instant context (even if the universal chain-smoking makes you wonder whether nicotine-sepia would have been better). Spools of film are passed from hand to hand; women unpin hats as they bustle into work. Most of all, however, there is a sense of skin-tight claustrophobia within the office walls, and Clooney cannily exploits the tension, leaving silences as the team wait for phones to ring, waiting a beat after the TV cameras stop to focus on Strathairn's inscrutable face.
Yet Good Night, and Good Luck is never inhuman or cold. Surprising bursts of gallows humour punctuate the action - "I'm a little busy bringing down the network tonight," deadpans Murrow after being invited to a ball game - and individual stories are never neglected. It says a lot about the film's ability to replicate the paranoia of the times that you start wondering why Joe and his colleague Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) meet so clandestinely. It turns out they are secretly married at a time when CBS forbade employee relationships.
Any more explicit in its liberalism and this film would be working in a vegan co-operative in San Francisco. Its point is not subtle. Yet it is hard not to be moved by its lessons for today's networks, with their MTV-style graphics and cement-haired, bantering anchor people. Television should not, in Murrow's words, be here to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate". It should not obey the White House or foster popcorn-crunching jingoism. Shorn of flash and dazzle in a way Murrow would appreciate, Good Night, and Good Luck practises what it preaches. It might be the result of wires and lights in a box, but it feels like a slice of life.