Like Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, George Clooney is a politically aware movie star who has taken the American political spectacle as his subject. Clooney’s second feature as a director, the classy, credible docudrama Good Night, and Good Luck, restages the 1954 vid-screen prizefight in which newsman Edward R. Murrow vanquished demagogue Joe McCarthy. It’s an unusually scrupulous reconstruction and, in a powerfully restrained performance, David Strathairn evokes Murrow as Brecht would have wished, by quoting him. Murrow’s CBS colleagues—Fred Friendly, Shirley and Joe Wershba, Don Hollenbeck, and the network owner William Paley—are all played by actors. McCarthy plays himself, as do all the news subjects. Focusing on the issues that rise out of the spectacle, Clooney has made a movie that is both true to its period and relevant to present-day America. “I’m an old Jeffersonian,” he told me last week before Good Night‘s American premiere at the New York Film Festival. “I think it’s more important to have a free press than a free government.”
Good Night, and Good Luck may be set in 1954, but it seems very much a post–9-11 film. You’ve said that you and Grant Heslov began writing the script three years ago. That’s during the run-up to the Iraq war. Did you find yourself changing your conception in response to what was going on? I was getting beat up pretty good around that time. But I thought there were more important issues than Bill O’Reilly doing a show about my career being over because of my political views. I was concerned about the lack of debate. The conception changed only in that a book came out about how great McCarthy was and how wrong Murrow was . . .
Ann Coulter’s Treason? Yes. I realized that we had to be incredibly careful with the facts, because if we got any of them wrong, they could say it’s all horseshit. So I had to double-source every scene.
But there are a number of parallels . . . You hear Murrow say, “We have to find the balance of protecting the state and the rights of the individual at the same time.” To me these are prescient arguments. You could apply them to Guantánamo Bay and the Patriot Act.
You’ve criticized celebrity journalism and made a movie about a guy who helped bring celebrity journalism to TV. You obviously have complicated feelings about the subject. I do. I’m the son of a journalist. It’s a big part of my life. My father had the same fights Murrow had in ’54, in ’74—and we had again in 2004. When my father was anchoring the news in Cincinnati, he would have to go to the general manager and say, “I need $1,100 so that we can have a live truck.”
In the early ’50s, your uncle José Ferrer was listed in Red Channels for his progressive associations and, as a result, was compelled to “clear” himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Did that provide you with a personal insight? I didn’t really know Joe very well. At the end of his life, he sort of got involved in my life. That was the reason I became an actor, in a way, because he came to Kentucky to do a movie. But I wasn’t all that aware of him, because he and my aunt Rosemary [Clooney] had been divorced for many years. His experience was always confusing. I’ve had people tell me that he named names. I don’t believe that. But there are complexities. Joe [Wershba] told us how once a month Red Channels would arrive at CBS and Paley would go through it, and if someone’s name was in the book, they might as well be fired.
You and Grant Heslov are both performers. Did your experience as an actor inform Good Night, and Good Luck ? What I couldn’t do was do it like an actor. I mostly consulted with my dad; I thought we had to do it like journalists. Grant and I started with an outline—rather than doing a biopic, we were just gonna focus on these five TV shows. Then we spent a year just watching actual footage. You can’t just use the edited pieces. I’m a liberal, but Point of Order is as manipulative as you can be. You watch McCarthy screaming at Senator Symington, and then you have a shot of everybody walking away, and McCarthy looks like Fredric March at the end of Inherit the Wind. When you see the actual footage, you see that it’s actually two different days.
Did you ever consider having an actor play McCarthy? From the very beginning we wanted to have McCarthy use his own words. No matter what an actor did, you wouldn’t believe him. You’d say he’s too arch, too much of a buffoon.
How would you characterize McCarthy’s persona? He’s simply an opportunist. He’s one of those guys who was suddenly thrust on the national stage and very quickly became a powerful man. That’s a seductive thing for someone who in general wasn’t that bright.
And as a performer? I think alcohol played a huge part. It’s hard to watch McCarthy’s rebuttal to Murrow because he’s slurring so badly that you can’t even make out what he’s saying. McCarthy was actually fairly good at short soundbites. But when it’s a 28-minute, 28-second piece . . . McCarthy’s mistake was to go at Murrow in Murrow’s ballpark. It’s like watching the Kennedy-Nixon debates. One guy was really good at the television and the other wasn’t.
McCarthy says something important, perhaps inadvertently, when he says that he and Murrow don’t matter as individuals but only as part of “the great struggle to protect American liberties.” The movie takes that literally. It’s not about personalities. David Strathairn doesn’t impersonate Murrow. There’s almost no “human interest.” He never cracks a smile; there’s no hint of a private life. I didn’t want an impersonation, because most people aren’t gonna know who Murrow is. Forty percent of the people in test screenings hadn’t heard of him. As an actor, David has the weight of the world. I felt like Murrow was carrying the entire country up the hill—he understood that if he lost, he would saddle us with McCarthy for another five years. The secret to David’s performance was to mainly have him speak on the air. The less he speaks, the more powerful he is.
It’s striking that there’s nothing self-congratulatory in Murrow’s victory. This was about a clash of two men, both at the height of their career, and it ended both of their careers. Their fates were very similar, including their habits. McCarthy’s drinking and Murrow’s smoking—that’s what killed them. McCarthy isn’t kicked out of the Senate; he’s stuck in the back row. Murrow isn’t kicked out of CBS. They just move him to Sunday afternoon and hope he’ll quit, which he did.
I was reminded of Dan Rather’s fall during the 2004 campaign. Dan Rather loves, loves, loves this movie. We had a great conversation about it. I felt bad for Dan because he bit on a piece that he shouldn’t have bit on. Marvin Kalb said, “What’s important to remember about Rather is that the story was right, but the source was wrong.”
Where do you get your news? I read The New York Times, The Washington Post. NPR does a pretty good job. I like Jim Lehrer. Jon Stewart’s show is a great place to get information. I still watch CNN. I spend four months out of the year in Europe. If people traveled at all they’d see a whole ‘nother world of news. Why aren’t people asking who forged the papers that said Saddam Hussein was buying yellowcake uranium? We know it’s forged. It sent us to war. Why isn’t that a daily question?
Why do you think that Republican actors have been so much more successful than Democratic actors at getting elected?
It’s strange, because probably 90 percent of actors are Democrats. I have absolutely no political ambitions. However, let’s say I was interested. I’d have to run on a completely different ticket than anyone ever ran on. I’d have to run on the “Yeah, I did it” ticket. “Did you sleep with so-and-so?” “Yeah, I did.” “Did you take drugs?” “You bet I did.”
Didn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger have those issues? Schwarzenegger ran on the “I don’t wanna talk about it” ticket. So did Bush. It’s very easy when you’re a conservative to say “good” and “bad.” It’s simple: evildoers, bad people. The job of a liberal is to see both sides. That makes us lousy debaters. It’s much easier to have a simplistic point of view, like Reagan.
How did you feel about being blown up in Team America? I helped those guys get their show on the air. They’re friends of mine. If you’re gonna stick your neck out, you gotta get lampooned for it. I don’t mind that at all. We as Democrats have to keep our sense of humor.