George Clooney, David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson and Grant Heslov
by Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 1, 2005.
The word legendary is tossed about way too cavalierly, however Edward R. Murrow is legitimately a legend of television broadcasting. The newsman took his radio fame (from his current affairs show Hear It Now) and translated it to See It Now for the nascent art form of television.
Murrow was an old school journalist, one to whom the truth was of paramount importance. It was more important than money. It was more important than the job. It was more important than the corporation. However, Murrow did have to make some concessions for his show. The biggest one was hosting a fluffy personality-based series called Person to Person, in which he interviewed the personalities of the day, like Liberace.
However, Murrow’s real talent was as a newsman, and he took his responsibility very much to heart. His career reached its ultimate crossroads when Murrow became the first journalist to question the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy had become a cause celebre by insisting that the State Department was infested by “card-carrying” Communist sympathizers. This started the so-called “Red Scare” and caused very public trials in which many innocent Americans were branded communists.
Murrow was horrified by the misuse of power, so he stood up and used film of McCarthy to condemn him. Murrow knew that the stand would cause him great grief. As Murrow predicted, McCarthy responded by accusing him of communism and having sympathetic journalists and citizens vilify Murrow and his associates. He knew it would not be a popular stance with his network, CBS. Network honcho Bill Paley kept the wolves from the door as long as he could, but they lost advertisers and angered executives and stock-holders.
This very public feud ended up effectively destroying both men’s professions. McCarthy was disgraced and defanged in public and served out the rest of his term in disgrace. Murrow’s career was never the same, either, he was demoted, given a lesser timeslot, and eventually left journalism a few years later.
The Murrow-McCarthy showdown has been visualized in the evocative new film Good Night, and Good Luck. (The title is derived from Murrow’s nightly sign-off.) The movie is a long-planned dream project for movie star George Clooney, who directed and co-wrote the film with long-time creative partner Grant Heslov. “Grant and I go back twenty-some years,” Clooney reminisces. “He loaned me a hundred bucks to get headshots for a Joanie Loves Chachi episode, which I did not get… I’m still paying him back for it.”
Even though Clooney had no real urge to act in the film, he does that as well, taking a supporting role, portraying Murrow’s legendary producer and partner Fred Friendly. Taking this role, Clooney acknowledges, was in part playing a necessary piece in the Hollywood game.
“I didn’t really want to act in the film,” Clooney says. “It isn’t fun directing yourself. ‘How was I? Fantastic. I think you look younger.’ It’s not fun, but it was a black-and-white movie starring David Strathairn, for seven-and-a-half million dollars, so they were gonna make sure that I was in it one way or another.”
However, he knew even though he may be the most recognizable member of a well-respected cast, he was not going to be the face of the film. In fact, being a face in the crowd is the way he prefers to work. “I like ensembles… ER was an ensemble. I had all of my successes out of ensembles. Quite honestly, I like working with people that are friends. Its fun. I have a fun set when we’re there. The set’s a fun place to be, because I think it’s healthy and good work comes out of it.”
Of course, there is a certain accountability in playing real characters. Most of this burden falls right upon the capable shoulders of David Strathairn. Strathairn has been a respected actor in Hollywood for over two decades, and yet his quality has not translated in him becoming a household name. He has done notable turns such as playing innocent-but-tormented Chicago Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out, Meryl Streep’s worried husband in The River Wild, the violent husband in Dolores Claibourne, a priest with a secret in Simon Birch and Helen Keller’s father in the TV remake of The Miracle Worker. He has also appeared in Silkwood, Ice Man, At Close Range, A League of Their Own, Sneakers, Lost In Yonkers, The Firm, LA Confidential and several films by friend and director John Sayles. “He was really the only guy we ever talked about,” Heslov says. Clooney takes it a step farther, “He was the only guy we ever thought of.”
He felt the need to be as realistic as possible, because his role of Murrow is an iconic figure in journalism and American History. “When you have to pull something out of the imagination of the author – the fictitious thing – at the get go, you’re responsible to a different set of circumstances, I think,” Strathairn acknowledges. “Because always you’re responsible to the script. In this particular case, it wasn’t a bio pic, so George wasn’t exploring the man alone at the bar or at home on his farm. That, to a certain extent, focused what I had to be attentive to. Yes, there is a responsibility when it’s a historical character, especially of such magnitude as someone like Edward R. Murrow. You are respectful of the image of people who know him and are still alive have of him. They’re remembering that image. Then, also, in many ways there is a responsibility to present as an objective and respectful image to people who have no idea who he is.” However, he insists, it is not a simple job of mimicking the man. “George said no, this is not an impersonation.”
Patricia Clarkson is also a part of the talented ensemble. She has been one of the busiest actors in Hollywood in recent years, starring in the acclaimed films Far From Heaven, Pieces of April, The Station Agent, Dogville, Miracle and The Woods, as well as playing the recurring role of Ruth Fisher’s hippie sister on the series Six Feet Under. Clarkson, who plays pioneering female television exec Shirley Wershba in Good Night, and Good Luck, admits she had it a little easier than Strathairn.
“The main reason [is] that there’s not a lot of footage of Shirley,” Clarkson says. “I also was fortunate in that she’s still very much alive and I met with her. I’m just madly in love with her. She’s a remarkable woman, still. She’s had a remarkable life. She’s funny and winning, still at… I don’t want to give away her age… I met with Shirley, talked to her. I feel like I have a new friend in my life. I extracted what I could. I wanted to be a part of this movie. There was not a lot of Shirley, but what there is, is choice. I wanted to try to capture her spirit. Her essence. Her wit and intelligence, which she has mountains of. So, it was lovely. It was a beautiful thing that happened on this film for me. Meeting this wonderful woman and just extracting a little part of her and taking it into the film with me.”
As far as Clooney, he decided to be a little less lifelike in his portrayal of producer Fred Friendly. Not because of any humbleness on the part of the actor, but mostly because of the personality of the character. “Fred, those of you who knew him or know of him — he really took over a room. He came in and he was bombastic. I decided early on that that can’t be the nature of this character because this was about the story and about these words. So, I took it just because I thought it’s a big enough part that I can help get the money and I have a sense as a director of how much or how little of Fred I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be the relationship between the guys. I wanted it to be the camaraderie. I wanted it to be some of the fun. I wanted there to be the drive. But, I don’t want him to take over a room. As an actor I’m most proud of the fact that I’m in those scenes and you’d never look at me, which you know is[significant] because I really enjoy looking at me.”
And what was Grant Heslov’s motivation in portraying future CBS exec Don Hewitt? “Well I chose my character because we couldn’t find any one else to play it,” Heslov acknowledges cheerfully. “Because it was easy for me to do it. We never really knew when that character was going to work and that way I could just suit up if I had to and just go in the scene. It was so simple.”
Not so simple is the film’s politics. It’s hard not to notice that many of the concerns which Murrow had are being replayed now in the United States halls of power. In particular, the case of Navy pilot Milo Radulovich, who was discharged from the military for no apparent reason other than the fact that his father and sister may or may not have had communist ties. It is guilt by association, and the story, which is covered in great depth in the film (including a replay of Murrow’s original story on the subject) is eerie in its similarity to recent claims of Arab citizens who claim that they were held against their will, without legal advice or any limits on the time which they can be questioned.
So is Good Night, and Good Luck something of an indictment of the Patriot Act? “Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film is being released the same week that it’s being voted on,” Strathairn allows.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right…,” Clarkson laughs.
“It’s not an indictment,” Clooney insists. “It is a debate of it. Certainly we’re about to have this new vote. I don’t know which one [version of the Act] you’ve read; if you’ve read the House or the Senate one. The House one’s terrifying. But I think that with any luck we’re at a place now in our country where it isn’t ‘my country, right or wrong,’ again, and that people will have honest discussions about whether or not you want to give away certain civil liberties in the pursuit of saving the State. I think it’s an important debate to have. I don’t have the answers for it. But I think its important to be talking about.”
Straithain continues, “If it is a platform for potential neurosurgery to be applied on [the Patriot Act], yeah. [However,] George and Grant will adamantly say that this was not intended as a proselytizing, polarizing picture.”
Clarkson agrees, “No, I think it actually began out of George’s love for Murrow.”
That love and respect suffuses every frame of Good Night, and Good Luck. Clooney had been fascinated with Murrow’s story for years, introduced to the maverick newsman by his father Nick, a long-time reporter and anchorman who is currently a Congressional candidate in Kentucky.
“It started obviously because I grew up on a newsroom floor,” Clooney recalls, “watching my dad work with reporters like Deborah Dickson in Cincinnati, Ohio and Howard Ain and these really wonderful reporters. Watching them piece a news show together. Murrow was always the high watermark that everyone aims for. So it was my love of that and it was certainly a tip of the hat to my dad and the sacrifices that he made over the years.”
Nick Clooney was thrilled his son would be making a film about his hero, and he gave George a piece of advice. “He just said the one thing to me constantly, that was important,” George Clooney says. “We talked about [it] a lot, Grant and I. He said, treat it like a journalist. Double check, double source every scene so that when the people that want to marginalize it, and they are out there, they can [try to] marginalize the film all they want. But, we wanted it to be based strictly – each scene happened. It’s important to say that because there is sort of a revisionist history going on that McCarthy was right and Murrow was a traitor. Page Six [in The New York Post] actually wrote a nice story about that. Ann Coulter certainly has a lovely book about it, about Murrow getting the story wrong. It was important to recalibrate fact, period fact. So my dad said get the facts right.
“In doing the research we learned that it was important for us to go back to the original material,” Clooney continues. “For instance, Point of Order, which some of you may know, is the documentary made about the Army-McCarthy hearings. If we just used that as our source, the problem is — and I’m an old liberal — it’s really unbelievably, manipulatively bad. Bad. I mean, they have that scene where McCarthy is screaming at Senator Simonton, ‘don’t you …’ and they cut to this wide shot of him and it looks like Frederick March at the end of Inherit the Wind. ‘Where you think your going? Don’t go anywhere!’ When we got into the archival footage and watched [it] all, Grant called me up and said, ‘you’re not going to believe this.’ It was two different days. So the problem is — what our job was — is to make sure that we went back to all of the source material from the very beginning so that we weren’t going to compound any sort of myth that had been made in an editing room. That was our job and it made it more complicated because we thought we could just use the source material that we had. We found ourselves having to check everything.”
Another way in which they assured accuracy was that Clooney and Heslov decided to use real footage of Murrow’s stories and of Senator McCarthy. They tried out the idea of an actor to play the red-baiting senator, but in the end they realized that Senator McCarthy was so over-the-top that any actor they brought in to play him would look like he was chewing the scenery. So they decided to let McCarthy speak for himself, just like Murrow did fifty years ago.
“We wanted to use McCarthy’s own words,” Heslov says. “We thought that in the end it would be most effective…”
“And it was much cheaper,” Clooney interjects.
Heslov agrees, “And it was cheaper.”
“We were also going to take out an ad in the trades,” Clooney continues. “Best supporting actor — for your consideration — Joe McCarthy.”
Not only did they have to worry about the facts of the case, they also spent an inordinate amount of time making sure they got the everyday details of life in 1953-54 correct. And despite the fact that he is a non-smoker, Strathairn was one of many characters who smoked like a chimney, “Because that’s what they did.”
The newsmen were made to learn about the stories of the time. “We were given the copy of The New York Times from March, 1953,” Strathairn says. “We had the headlines. What was actually happening that day, or the day before. George would say, ‘Okay, Matt, you’re going to cover local news. Robert Downey, you’re going to do the obits. Come up with a story about today. Pitch your story in the scene. So, okay, off you go.’ Now, also try to find something that was not directly related to what is in the script for that day, but something that’s germane to the issues. So everybody, they went back and put the hair and make-up on, and everybody was memorizing lines. (Then they went back) and he’d say, ‘Okay, what have you got?’ ‘Umm, well, let’s see, the Brooklyn Dodgers… was it Jackie Robinson…’ They got it so it was live, really live. It was a real testament to the ensemble, these guys were amazing. I’d sit in the back of the room…”
Clarkson adds, “And a lot of it’s all on the cutting room floor, but I mean, they would riff on the day, like the events of the day.”
“Which is a tall order, because they talked differently back then,” Strathairn continues. There was no ‘like, you know,’ ‘like,’ ‘like’…”
“And the speed of the dialogue was different,” Clarkson agrees. “Oh, yes. Everything louder, faster…”
“In the mornings, they would come in and we had a real newsroom set up with their own typewriters and their own desks,” Clooney recalls. “Every morning you’d say today is October 4, 1954, and they had The New York Times, The New York Post, The Washington Post of that day with all the ads and everything. They would sit there with their little manual typewriters and they would go through the papers and they would pick their stories. Then we would go into the room after a couple hours when we were ready to start, with the cameras set, and we’d have two cameras going and they’d start rolling and I would go, ‘OK what’s your lead, let’s hear it.’ We did it the way I’d watch my dad put together a news program every night. That had an energy to it that I really loved and I felt. It reminded me of the things I grew up watching in the news. It’s a funny thing how these guys will take on these characters. Trying to pitch. It’s like my dad trying to pitch Metro stories, which just never are going to make it to the front. I think it should be a lead. No, Metro.”
“George knows that world,” Strathairn concludes. “He grew up in that world.”
Clarkson also had the strange experience of being the only woman in the Boys Club of the newsroom. This was odd coming right after working with so many women on Six Feet Under. “I loved doing Six Feet Underand working with Frannie Conroy and Kathy Bates,” Clarkson says. “It was a dream. One that I think I miss already. It’s difficult for me to articulate, actually. It’s just a different feeling. They’re both lively.”
Strathairn laughs, “With men she walks into a room and they all look at her. I don’t know, maybe she walks into a room like with a bunch of women they just look that her clothes.”
“Every time I walked in in those little 50s dresses,” Clarkson agrees. “They give you like…” She mimes watching someone walk past. “Yeah, whenever I’d walk in in that red dress, all the boys were like,’whoooaaa…’ I’m telling you. I didn’t want to go home… It was sexy. It was very sexy… Well, let’s get down to it. It was sexy and flattering. Come on. I’m in a room with all these intelligent, smart men. With like a 23-inch waisted dress. My hair all dingy-doingy.”
So, does this immersion into the world of Journalism give any of the makers of Good Night, and Good Luck pangs of regret for the road not taken? “No, I don’t have the talent for [journalism],” Clooney admits freely. “I tried it when I was young. My dad’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. [I couldn’t keep up with] the people who do this really well . The people who ask direct questions and are fearless.”
Clarkson, on the other hand, would give it a try. “I would love to,” she says enthusiatically. “I’m a news junkie. I’m obsessed. I love reporters and journalists. I think in my next life, that’s what I’d like to be. Maybe not an anchor, but I’d love to be a journalist. I’d love to sit and interview people.”
Well, if the actors will not be journalists (at least in this life), what about the ones out there? Is it possible for a modern TV newsman or reporter to change the world like Murrow did in the 50s? Complaints abound that modern journalists do not ask the tough questions. They tell the cheesy and exploitative stories rather than the truly important ones. They are handcuffed by the bottom-lines of the mega-corporations which own the sources of information. They are locked out by an administration which will not in any way cooperate, instead repeating talking points and spin incessantly. Could there be another Murrow out there?
“I thought Brian Williams,” Clooney says. “He’s really articulate and really smart. I think he’s the best of the guys I’ve seen so far. I’ve seen him especially on Jon Stewart. I thought he was smart because he answered some funny questions and then he avoided answering the ones that would get him in Dodge. The difference is, there’s still Bill Moyers. There’s still great reporting going on by a bunch of people. The problem is that I don’t think anybody is ever going to have forty million people watching them again. It may be good that there won’t ever be the most trusted man in America again — depending on who that man is.”
“I think there are shades of Murrow in several journalists now,” Clarkson says. “I think there are some great journalists who are vigorous and determined and thoughtful. But I think it’s interesting, with [Hurricane] Katrina, something happened. Everyone started to really step up to the plate.”
“I saw some real teeth in journalism in Katrina,” Clooney agrees.
“It always seems that we are Monday morning quarterbacks, I guess, in society,” Strathairn says. “Shoulda, coulda, woulda, didn’t. Being able to look over our shoulder and then fixing what had happened yesterday and finding a way to do it. Like they are doing in Texas right now. But, I don’t think it’s possible for a Murrow to exist, purely for the reason that he spoke to 40-60 million people at one time. Brian Williams last night said I speak to two to three million. It’s just so fractured now. So diverse. The last high-water mark was Walter Cronkite, in 1968, when he came back and basically changed government policy by what he said about Vietnam. Brian Williams said, ‘If I wanted to say, ‘Have you no decency? At long last have you no decency?’ I would have to say it on a blog. I’d have to say it on C-SPAN. I’d have to say it on ESPN…”
“…On HBO…,” Clarkson interjects, “you know, just…
“…for people to hear it,” Strathairn concludes.
Speaking of reaching people, do they worry about finding an audience for a serious black-and-white drama which looks at serious legal and ethical implications? Also, in this deeply polarized country, will they be able to capture a wide audience or are they just preaching to the converted? Will they be able to get the popcorn viewers to see their quality work?
“Well, even if everyone who is converted goes to see it, that’s still a good thing,” Clarkson says. “I don’t want to push away the converted. But, I have to tell you, maybe I’m naïve, but I have this thought. I have many nieces and nephews and I have this feeling that [for] 18-25 year olds on the college campuses where it’s going to play, Murrow might become a new kind of folk hero. I don’t think that’s that far fetched. I think that he might have a resurgence.”
“The political air of this film, which is an air that everybody breathes. It’s not just the choir. I think it’s in the air, what’s in this movie,” Strathairn says. Then he jokes, “And oh my God, this is an action picture…”
Clarkson laughs, “And there’s a lot of T&A, too.”
Heslov says, “We had an alternative ending…”
Clooney chuckles, “It was a musical number.”
However, while there is much funny in the film (very little of the thrill-packed tuneful jiggling they just promised, though…) in the end, it is about a deadly serious subject. An issue that is every bit as trenchant today as it was in the McCarthy era.
Clarkson says, “I think the themes of this movie, of course, continue on in the world. In the government. The political system. Responsibility of journalism. Civil rights. Civil liberties. Many things. I think, in a way, you have to kind of present the past so you don’t repeat it. And remember it…”
“It isn’t overtly political,” Clooney insists. “It is a film by someone who happens to be political. But it’s a historical piece. We were very careful with our facts to be sure of that. If that opens up a debate of any sort of political or journalistic questions, then good. And if it doesn’t that’s okay. We did our jobs. If some kid in Cincinnati sees it in his journalism class and decides he wants to be a writer because of it and wants to hold certain standards then we win. We win.”
|© 2005 Melinda Sue Gordon. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 1, 2005.