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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.

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


Thisis 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.

LA Weekly