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Eloquent crusader
Clooney’s caustic, captivating Good Night
The good Murrow


David Strathairn on the patron saint of broadcast news

Edward R. Murrow did things that broadcast journalists today would never dream of — like smoke cigarettes on the air.

"It was like another finger, just this finger he always kept lit," says David Strathairn, who won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for his uncanny portrayal of the legendary newsman in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. "It was always there, it seems; they said they never saw him without it."

A nonsmoker, Strathairn found the constant puffing a challenge. To spare himself and the rest of the cast and crew, he had the cigarettes rolled with a pleasantly aromatic pipe tobacco. And, he didn’t inhale. It was just part of the process by which he re-created the exterior of his subject. "I watched a lot of actual broadcast, just over and over, and read a lot about it. It was my responsibility to at least replicate his movements. So I just read a lot and smoked a lot too."

As for Murrow’s progressive political ideas and fervent belief in free speech and objective reporting, Strathairn, an admitted liberal, had no problem adopting those aspects of his character. Nor do audiences, apparently: from a standing ovation at the Venice festival to a screening for students at Tufts University that was held just the night before this interview, the overwhelming majority of viewers have been enthusiastic.

"In Italy it was great. They all thought it was about Berlusconi. And at Tufts they were really excited about it. It felt like a rally at the school, a rallying cry for journalists and educators. How do we get it back, how do we make the media better? Sort of like a brainstorming group all inspired by this film. It was exciting."

So, how do we make the media better?

"I have no answers for that, except try and apply Murrow’s standards and professionalism, his integrity, bravery, and perseverance, and his humanity. His belief that we are as good as what we know."

Which, these days, is very problematic, especially when a lot of what people know about the world comes from movies, celebrities, or journalists who are celebrities. Does Strathairn have problems with actors spouting off like politicians, or with journalism entangled with entertainment?

"That’s a slippery slope. George [Clooney] is a citizen, artists are citizens, journalists are citizens. Just because they are movie stars doesn’t mean they can’t speak out like anybody else. Some people willy-nilly dismiss Sean Penn or George or attack Angelina Jolie for what she probably felt deeply about the children’s plight when she was making that film [Beyond Borders]. On the other hand, you have Warren Beatty who might be up against Schwarzenegger. Bulworth will be up against the Terminator as the governor of California. I mean, that’s insane."

How about himself? Does he see a potential campaign (other than for an Oscar, which many consider a distinct possibility) in the future?

"It feels like you make a movie like this and all of a sudden you are politicized. No, I don’t think so . . . "

Too much in the past to cover up?

"I’d be like Clooney, who said he would have to run on the ‘Yes, I did’ ticket."

At least he can say with all honesty that he didn’t inhale.


Related Links

Good Night and Good Luck's official Web site

Chris Fujiwara reviews George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

An elegant scolding frames Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s meticulous and stirring account of the duel between broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Red-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by himself, via archival news footage). Celebrated at a fête in 1958 for his career achievements, Murrow turns on the network-news broadcasters honoring him. "This will probably do no one any good," he begins, and concludes by condemning the new medium for selling out its potential, folding to political and commercial pressure, and becoming a tool "to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us."

Nearly five decades later, with the quality of news ranging from Fox to frivolous, Murrow’s criticism seems mild. Is it up to Hollywood to take up the slack? We could do worse than this film. With exhilarating assurance, detail, and immediacy, Clooney recreates the swirl of events behind a handful of programs in Murrow’s CBS series See It Now.

Sounds like a lot of speechifying, and in black and white to boot, with no violence except an off-screen suicide, and no sex except for a hush-hush office romance (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as secretly wed CBS employees Joe and Shirley Wershba). But Clooney keeps the intensity high with overlapping sound and a roving camera reminiscent of 1970s Altman — indeed, Murrow and his crew evince some of the anarchic hilarity of a buttoned-down M*A*S*H unit. And though not a single scene is exterior and much of the footage is archival, the atmosphere is electric, not stuffy; it’s a world compressed inside a kinescope tube.

The dour mage of this world is Strathairn’s Murrow. Except for his badinage with his producer, TV legend Fred Friendly (Clooney), and other colleagues, this is the Murrow of the eloquent script, the rapierlike cigarette, and the aquiline stare into the camera. All that is known of his personal world or inner darkness comes from a sidelong glance or the abject slouch into which he settles when, for example, he must interview Liberace for Person to Person, the program that earned his keep at CBS and which was a harbinger of the celebrity culture that passes for news today.

Like the kind of news Murrow embodied, Good Night is more about issues than emotions, style more than personality. It’s a reminder of a time when TV journalists challenged authority rather than defended it, drew on indignation rather than on self-righteousness, promoted clarity instead of deceit. As for now — good night, and good luck.


Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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