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Clooney Vision 

Good Night, and Good Luck, a searing requiem for the Fourth Estate, raises questions about truth and paranoia today

Thursday, Oct 13 2005
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Photo by Michael Powers

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.

—Edward R. Murrow, keynote address to the national convention of the Radio and Television News Directors Association (October 15, 1958)

We have to break the mold in news.... I want to bomb the whole building.... News is commerce too.

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—CBS chairman Les Moonves, The New York Times Magazine (September 4, 2005)

This... is Washington, D.C. It’s an evening in late September, in a ballroom on the basement level of the Four Seasons Hotel, and as George Clooney prepares to literally meet the press, that same natty designer attire and million-watt smile you’ve seen radiating from a thousand magazine covers belies a stomach full of butterflies. Clooney doesn’t usually get nervous around journalists — quite the opposite. He wears his long-running and highly public war of words with Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly as though it were a merit badge and has hardly been shy in expressing his views about the war in Iraq. But tonight is no ordinary night. The event is a reception hosted by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. The occasion is the movie Good Night, and Good Luck, which dramatizes Edward R. Murrow’s 1953-54 fight, via his weekly See It Now television program, against the redbaiting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

To read Ella Taylor's review of the film Good Night, and Good Luck, click here.

To read Scott Foundas' interview with David Strathairn, click here.

It’s the second feature film directed by George Clooney, who also co-wrote the film (with friend and fellow actor Grant Heslov) and who plays a small role in it, as Murrow’s producer and confidant, Fred Friendly. Clooney’s been on the campaign trail with the movie for a few weeks now, and while the response has been strong — at the Venice Film Festival, where Good Night had its world premiere, it took home awards for both best actor (for David Strathairn, who plays Murrow) and best screenplay — he’s been on edge about how American news people will react to the film. And now he’s up to his neck in them — a who’s who of beltway broadcasters that includes veteran NPR anchor (and Murrow biographer) Bob Edwards and longtime ABC reporter Chris Wallace, who's now at Fox News. Some of those in attendance (like former Meet the Press moderator Marvin Kalb) knew Murrow personally, while quite a few others were pupils of Friendly, who spent many years on the faculty of the Columbia University journalism program. As if that weren’t enough, the RTNDA is the very organization at whose 1958 Chicago convention Murrow delivered a famously contentious keynote address about the decline of broadcast-journalism ethics. A dramatization of that oft-quoted speech now bookends Clooney’s film. “I don’t know where they’ll stand on this one,” Clooney tells me during a brief pause from being whisked about the room by RTNDA president Barbara Cochran, who seems intent on making sure Clooney shakes every hand in sight. “I don’t know whether they’ll think it’s an accusation of them or if they’ll think it points out a great moment in journalism history.” As the night wears on and segues into a panel discussion featuring Clooney, Heslov and Strathairn and moderated by Kalb, it becomes clear that both reactions are in the air — proof that while Clooney’s movie may be in black-and-white, the issues it raises are anything but. On the one hand, it’s impossible to witness Murrow’s dogged investigation of McCarthy’s half-truths and specious accusations without thinking of the similarly committed reporters who held government’s feet to the fire over the Hurricane Katrina debacle. On the other, Murrow’s ultimate reward for his efforts — banishment to the Siberia of Sunday-afternoon broadcasting by sponsor-conscious CBS president William S. Paley (played in the film by Frank Langella) — draws discomforting parallels to current CBS chairman Les Moonves’ recent comments about the need for TV news to become more “entertaining.” “I think it’s an interesting time to talk about the responsibilities of the Fourth Estate,” Clooney says. But Good Night, and Good Luck has something else on its mind, too. It wants to discuss the culture of fear that gave rise to McCarthyism in the first place, and the ways in which our civil liberties, be we journalists or otherwise, can become compromised in times of national crisis. In its mellow, jazzy way, and without ever making the connection obvious — unlike, say, Tim Robbins’ red-scare tale, Cradle Will Rock — it emerges as the single most urgent and provocative American film to date in this era of the Patriot Act, Judith Miller and “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay. George Clooney just might have broadcast news hard-wired into his DNA. The day before the RTNDA event, I sit down to talk with a considerably more relaxed Clooney in his Four Seasons suite, and he begins by telling me about what it was like to grow up the son of a former news director and anchorman whose own refusal to kowtow to corporate pressures cost him a fair number of jobs over the years. As a child, he says, he and his sister spent countless hours wandering the halls of the affiliate stations where their dad worked, picking up such practical skills as cue-card holding and floor directing in the process. At home, Murrow (who died of lung cancer in 1965) was spoken about in hushed tones and, at an age when most kids are eager for fairy tales, young George was regaled with stories of the willful newsman and his historic expose. “It was the high-water mark,” Clooney recalls. “That, and Cronkite coming back from Vietnam in ’67 and saying it was a stalemate over there. My dad would say those were the two times you could point to broadcast journalists actually changing policy.” Not surprisingly, Good Night, and Good Luck isn’t the first time Clooney has set a film in and around the kinetic atmosphere of live television production. That honor belongs to his electrifying 2002 debut feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which told the wild and woolly tale of Gong Show impresario Chuck Barris’ supposed odyssey from lowbrow TV producer to globe-trotting CIA hitman. By then, Clooney, who studied journalism himself before turning to acting, had already been toying with the idea of telling Murrow’s story, at one point even co-authoring (with writer Walon Green) a script for a TV movie about the reporter’s life. That project sold to CBS in the mid-1990s and was never made, but then some changes in the direction of the nation’s ideological winds got Clooney thinking about Murrow again. “There was a certain revisionist history about McCarthy — books being written about how he was right and Murrow was wrong,” he says, noting Ann Coulter’s controversial 2003 tome, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism as a particular incitement. “I didn’t want the history to be rewritten.” So Clooney thought like a journalist. Instead of the more conventional biopic he’d originally envisioned, Good Night, and Good Luck would narrow its focus to the Murrow-McCarthy contretemps. And rather than cast an actor to play McCarthy (and thereby open the door to accusations of a biased portrayal), Clooney would use existing archival footage of the HUAC hearings and other public McCarthy appearances, integrating it seamlessly into re-creations of Murrow’s original broadcasts. In short, he would do exactly what Murrow had done five decades earlier — he’d use McCarthy’s own words to back the junior senator from Wisconsin into an inescapable corner. “I had to deal straight with it,” he says, crediting his father’s own journalistic integrity as a guiding influence. “We double-sourced every single scene in the movie. We couldn’t play loose with any of the facts or we’d be marginalized, because if you find one thing that’s wrong, you can say the whole thing is bullshit.” “Just once in a while,” Murrow pleaded in his 1958 RTNDA speech, “let us exalt the importance of ideas and information.” Almost 50 years later, Clooney has heeded that call — and then some. Good Night, and Good Luck is an exhilarating movie that doesn’t canonize Murrow — as some have accused — so much as hold him up as an ideal, flawed and unmistakably human, but nevertheless a reminder that journalists can be heroes as well as pariahs, and that the battles waged over the airwaves are sometimes no less brave than those fought on the ground. Clooney has now made two films about fabulists who lied their way into broadcasting — Murrow about his age (he was just 27 when he first applied for a job opening at CBS radio, claiming to be 32), Barris about almost everything else. But the similarities more or less end there. Where Confessions was intentionally loud and ostentatious — “a movie dressed up in camouflage shirt and pink-polka-dotted pants in the middle of a surprise summer snowstorm,” I wrote at the time — Good Night is stately and discreet. Camouflage and polka dots have been traded for hand-tailored Saville Row suits, eye-popping Technicolor for silky black-and-white. As Clooney says, this one is all about the words. “I started by watching a bunch of Godard films,” he tells me, “and we even tried at one point to get the same lenses that he used for Breathless, until we found out we’d actually have to Scotch tape them to the camera because they wouldn’t fit. But then we realized that that wouldn’t have been right anyway. I knew from the very beginning that the star of the movie was the words, that I had to get out of the way of the words. So I started looking at D.A. Pennebaker documentaries, and Robert Drew’s Crisis and Primary, and sort of focusing on how to be a fly on the wall. For almost all of the shots in the film, we walked the actors in and said, ‘Okay, you guys pick where you want to be and then let me put the cameras there’ — as opposed to Confessions, where I set the camera and then said, ‘Come stand here.’ I wanted it to be a very different process all the way around, and less controlled, with the exception of the actual broadcasts, which were very controlled, as they would have been at the time.” It’s not every Sexiest Man Alive who name-drops Godard and Pennebaker, and manages to do so without sounding high­falutin about it. Then again, Clooney is no ordinary sex symbol. In person, he’s as urbane and self-effacing as Daniel Ocean. “He’s such a nice guy! And so handsome!” I had overheard a local television journalist exclaiming to her cameraman as I waited to be brought up to Clooney’s suite. “Too nice,” the cameraman replied — a throwaway line perhaps, but one with more than an ounce of truth about it. Clooney is too nice, or too something, like that one kid in high school who was friends with the jocks and the geeks and made it all look so effortless that you never doubted his sincerity. He may be the most enigmatic movie star since Warren Beatty, and also the one most suspicious of glamour, industriously chipping away at his pretty-boy facade in movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and even Good Night, and Good Luck, where his Friendly is not only paunchy and bespectacled, but almost always filmed from a distance or at an oblique angle. “If you look at the guys who actually survive over the years, they find a way to get out of that box,” the graying Clooney says, leaning in close, as he tends to do when he wants you to know he’s really levelling with you. “The Sexiest Man Alive? It’s embarrassing, but it’s still a compliment. It’s one of those things that there’s no right way to answer. It’s also sort of a backhanded slap, because it usually means you’re an idiot. But the guys who survive those things — the master of it all is Paul Newman — become character actors along the way, because you can’t sustain the other thing. Sean Connery can, but most of us can’t. And I don’t have any interest in it. I don’t want to be 60 years old and doing love scenes with 35-year-old actresses. I have an interest in being 65 years old and doing the kinds of roles I watched Newman do at 65. There’d be nothing better than to be able to do a film like The Verdict and be a guy who’s all washed up. I think the only way to survive as an actor is to continually grow and change. But that’s why you direct too. You want to have some fallbacks. To me, directing’s where I’m going to go. I enjoy it. I like being the boss.” It’s about more than fallbacks, though. Clooney is well aware that clout like his comes around only rarely in the picture business, and doesn’t last for very long when it does. He’s determined to make the most of it, and, since 1999, that’s meant a production company called Section Eight, from which Clooney and partner Steven Soderbergh have balanced Ocean’s Eleven-style blockbusters with edgier fare like Good Night, and Good Luck, Soderbergh’s forthcoming Bubble and a project Clooney is especially high on, Stephen Gaghan’s directorial debut, Syriana, based on CIA operative Robert Baer’s first-person account of the campaign against global terrorism. “When they do that retrospective about your life,” he says, “no one’s going to give a shit that you had 15 films that opened No. 1 at the box office. What they care about is what you had to say and where you stood. As long as I’m able to say to the studio, ‘We’re going to do Ocean’s Twelve, but I want to be able to do Syriana and some other films you guys aren’t going to want to do, I feel as if that’s okay. I want to be able, at 70 years old, to look back and think, ‘These were the projects I was working on that were close to me, when no one was encouraging me to do them and many people were discouraging me to do them.’” Clooney is uncompromising, and it’s not hard to see where he gets it from. “When I was a boy, we used to have a saying: ‘That guy’s as game as Dick Tracy,’” Clooney’s father, Nick, tells me a couple of days later. “George was always that guy. He was willing to try anything. He really doesn’t believe that he’s better than anyone else. He really believes that all of this — the pictures on the magazines — is ephemeral. It’s going to be gone. He’s very grounded that way. Both our daughter and our son figured out that character was important. They’re supposed to keep their word. They’re supposed to do things for other people, They’re supposed to help those who have less power than them.” “There’s about 10 percent you can do with a child, and it’s an important 10 percent” seconds Clooney’s mother, Nina, a former beauty queen who’s still trim and striking in her 60s. “But that other 90 percent, they build themselves. I think that long period George had of not being successful — he grew gradually into his success — was very good for him. I think if he had been a huge overnight success when he first went out there, it would have taken him a longer time to get beyond that and to get to where he is now.” Spend a little time in Clooney’s company and he leaves you with an impression very few superstars do — that while he enjoys being the center of attention, he could pretty much walk away from it all and never look back. He may have fought hard to get where he is today — that story, of the kid from Louisville who drove out to L.A. in a seen-better-days Chevrolet Monte Carlo with $300 to his name and slept in a friend’s closet until he could afford a place of his own has been told often over the years. But that hard-earned success hasn’t made him cautious in his choice of projects, or inclined to rest on the laurels of celebrity. If there’s one thing I learn after a few days spent drifting in and out of Clooney’s universe, it’s that he’s a guy who isn’t happy unless he’s making things difficult for himself. He even mortgaged his Los Angeles home to help scrape together Good Night’s modest $7 million budget — more, Clooney readily admits, than the movie is likely to make back — and he was hardly about to let a thing like a nasty spinal injury he suffered on the Syriana set sideline his dream project, no matter the chronic headaches and short-term memory loss that plagued him throughout the production. (He’s still on the mend, though he rarely lets on, aside from the occasional awkward shift in posture.) And he’d gladly do it all over again. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Clooney asks rhetorically. “I’ve already made more money and been more successful than I ever thought I’d be. I’m not stupid with my money. I’ve got it saved up. And it’s enough to get me through. If everything went to hell today, I’ve got a house in Italy that I can sell if I have to, and I can live off of that for the rest of my life. And I don’t panic about that. I lived in a closet for three years. I can live in a one-bedroom apartment. I really can. I don’t travel with an entourage. I don’t feel that need. I’m afraid that if you do that, if you put that bubble around you, then you lose touch with everything else that’s going on. I want to feel like I’m gettin’ into trouble.” “We get scared every once in a while,” Clooney tells the crowd back at the RTNDA fete, sounding a touch Murrow-like himself, “because we don’t want to be called unpatriotic. So suddenly it becomes ‘my country right or wrong,’ and when I was brought up, ‘my country right or wrong’ meant women can’t vote, blacks are sitting in the back of the bus and we’re still in Vietnam. It’s not just your right, but your duty, especially as a journalist, to question power, to question authority. You take Jose Padilla for instance. If he’s a criminal, then he has the right to a lawyer and the right to a speedy trial. Or he’s a prisoner of war and he gets Geneva Convention rights. If he’s neither of those two, then we are chipping away at our own foundation — the Constitution.” It’s a sentiment echoed the next night by Dan Rather. We’re in New York now, the final stop on Clooney’s promotional tour, and if last night’s room was tough, it’s got nothing on this one — a cadre of media elite that includes Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, Andy Rooney and, yes, even Bill O’Reilly, all here at the personal invitation of the man who preceded Rather at the CBS anchor desk: Walter Cronkite. Just 24 hours earlier, many of these same people were paying their respects to another news icon laid low by lung cancer, Peter Jennings, and perhaps for that reason the air seems thick with melancholy as the guests pour in for the postscreening reception at the Upper East Side’s Hotel Plaza Athenee. In the bar, a visibly emotional Rather seems lost in thought for a moment, then tells me, “I think a movie like this resonates now maybe more than ever. The only question is — does it make it clear enough what was at stake, why it was done and why it was so important? I think so. I hope so. I was very moved by it.” Finally, it is the opening night of the New York Film Festival. Good Night, and Good Luck has just had its American premiere at Lincoln Center, and as the crowd adjourns to the after party at Tavern on the Green, the buzz about the movie seems very good, if not quite rapturous. Even among those who like the film, some seem reluctant to take Clooney seriously as both actor and director — a hesitancy not unlike the one that greeted Clint Eastwood for many years. There’s a suspicion, I suppose, that Clooney can’t be that good at so many different things, that he can’t be the Sexiest Man Alive and a socially conscious Man of the World. Not that Clooney seems the least bit ruffled by it. At the party, across the crowded room, he’s surrounded by a throng of well-wishers as thick as permafrost, and he engages each one of them with the same quiet intensity, as if they were the only ones there. You’d scarcely guess that he goes back to work on Monday, starring as an American journalist caught up in a murder mystery in post-WWII Berlin in Soderbergh’s The Good German. But that very indefatigability is key to the Clooney mystique. As sure as he’s here this very moment, entertaining the troops, he’ll be gone the next — off somewhere getting into trouble.

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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