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Catching Up With George Clooney
By: Sara Brady
George Clooney doesn’t like to play it safe. His directorial debut, 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was a Charlie Kaufman–penned film about a game-show host who may have been a CIA assassin. And for his follow-up, Good Night, and Good Luck, he’s chosen a piece of 1950s history—about broadcast journalism, no less—and filmed it in lush black and white. David Strathairn plays CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, who devoted several of his See It Now programs (his sign-off is the movie’s title) to exposing the tactics of Communist-hunting senator Joseph McCarthy. Clooney, who cowrote the film (with actor Grant Heslov) and who plays Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, talks about why he considers this project both personal and political.
PREMIERE: Why is this still an important story?
My father was an anchorman for years and years, and we grew up with the theory that there are very few times that broadcast journalism can make that big of a difference, but those mileposts—Murrow taking on McCarthy and Cronkite taking on Vietnam—actually change things. That was a high point in my family’s life, something my father always talked about—without Murrow, what the country would have been like. So it was something I’ve always sort of romanticized. And as the world changed, and [it came out] that a couple of people McCarthy nailed were actually spies, there was this rewriting of history—about what a good guy McCarthy was. And it occurred to me that the whole point of what Murrow had done so brilliantly was to take on the subject matter saying, “I don’t know whether these people are guilty or not, but they have the right to face their accuser.” I wasn’t looking to preach to anybody; I just thought there were some really interesting parallels to issues going on today.
Why is Murrow such an icon?
We don’t have anybody that speaks like Murrow today. I mean, if anybody [gave] just one of those speeches that he gives on the show, [they’d] probably be president. I’ve never seen anybody so eloquent. You always want to be represented by your best, and he seems to have been our best.
You have actors playing real CBS employees, some of whom are still alive or have family members living. What research went into making these portraits historically accurate?
I had to do it the same way that Murrow did it, which was source everything. We sat down and did interview after interview, with Ruth Friendly and with Casey Murrow and Milo Radulovich; we spent time with all those guys and tried to cross-reference stories from over the years. We were very careful with historical references because we felt like this is not the time to play loose with facts.
David Strathairn plays Murrow with incredible gravitas. How difficult was it to cast that part?
There was a moment that I thought I should play the role, because it’s such a great part. And then I was like, I’m not the right guy. Because every time you see Murrow, you feel like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. And you can’t really act that; you just have to sort of have that. And David has it. He channeled him.
How hard is it to get a black-and-white film green-lighted?
It was all resistance. Every company we went to said, “We can’t sell a black-and-white film.” And fair enough, I get it; but I wrote it, I’m directing it, and I have the second lead in it, and we couldn’t get seven and a half million dollars to make the film. So we pieced it together with a couple of [companies] who were willing—Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s, and Jeff Skoll’s—and we sold it overseas pretty well, surprisingly. They weren’t as shy about black and white. I wanted this to feel like a D.A. Pennebaker documentary in a way. That was why black and white was a must, all the way through.
The overlapping dialogue in the newsroom has a clear Robert Altman influence.
Well, Altman’s a big part of this. He was certainly the master of getting actors to understand that it can’t all be relied on in a [sound] mix, that you have to make room for other actors. You have to not be trying to outtalk them all the time. And I used Nashville as a template for the music because I didn’t want to do any playback music. We hired all these musicians who worked with my aunt Rosemary and looked for someone who could be this iconic figure that we could go back to, like Joel Grey in Cabaret . This touchstone. The whole crew just melted when Dianne Reeves would come in and start singing. The whole place was electric.
The film takes place largely in the CBS newsrooms and studios; we almost never go home with the characters.
The idea was to try and weave in stories that humanize these people. And we got notes at times from people saying, “Well, what about Murrow’s life and what about his wife and what happened to him at the end?” The truth was, I don’t care. I’m not doing a biopic. It’s a story of five episodes of television, basically, and the things that went on in those periods of time. A couple [played by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson] happened to be in the newsroom, so we could go home with them for a minute, but the truth was, it was about Murrow and McCarthy. Both suffered the exact same fate: They were basically censured, put in the back row, and left there to dry on the vine. That great historic fight took them both down, ultimately. The difference is, Murrow stands the test of time.
Why did you choose to show McCarthy only in archival footage?
The danger of hiring an actor for the part was always that you could never believe the guy, with stringy hair hanging down in his face and screaming, ranting and raving. The truth is to use McCarthy’s own words, as opposed to having an actor play him.
How did the actors prepare for their roles as journalists?
The kids, Tate Donovan and all those guys, would come in and type out the news of the day on a typewriter. And [Strathairn] would sit there and read it; just every morning, he would come in and read some of the news. We were watching, going, this is today’s news read by Edward R. Murrow. Oh my God. How different it sounds.
How do you think the film reflects or comments on the current state of television news?
It’s an interesting time because you realize how Murrow and McCarthy could never happen again. One voice couldn’t have that impact. There isn’t the most trusted man in America anymore. We had a montage of the history of television at the end of the film, bringing us up-to-date—the great moments, the stunning moments, the idiot moments. We ended it with this car chase—a couple of stations covered it—where the guy got out of the car, took his clothes off, set himself on fire, stuck a shotgun in his mouth, and blew his head off. On one of the channels, you could hear guys laughing in the background, going, oh my God, there’s your news story. And the camera moved in on him—they’d interrupted a children’s program to do it. The montage was an amazing thing to watch, but it dawned on me that it was manipulative, because adults are going to understand what we’re talking about. And if they don’t, then I can’t spoon-feed them arguments about how the news has become entertainment. To me, it’s a really important time for this film. Whether or not it’s an important film, I don’t know. But it was important to just open the discussion again.
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