As a kid, the Irish-American actor spent countless hours watching his dad Nick work on television news programs and talk shows in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Lexington, Kentucky. It was during this time the younger Clooney says he developed a deep respect for the men and women who work tirelessly to convey vital information to their audiences. It was also then he first heard of Murrow.
Filmed in black and white, “Good Night, And Good Luck” is a snapshot of Murrow’s finest hour as a CBS journalist-the time when he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a man who launched ruthless investigations into the lives of suspected communists in the 1950s. Speaking out when most of his contemporaries were too afraid to do so, Murrow helped end the so-called Red Scare, a witch hunt that violated the civil liberties of innumerable Americans and ended the professional lives of many innocent people working in Hollywood and for the government.
In the movie, David Straithern plays Murrow, while Clooney plays his friend and producer, Fred Friendly. Featured in supporting roles are Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Daniels, Patricia Clarkson, Tom McCarthy, Tate Donovan and Grant Heslov, an actor who also co-wrote the film with director/star Clooney. Sen. McCarthy, who is seen in real footage, plays himself, prompting Clooney to joke that, come Oscar season, he will take out advertisements in the trade papers proposing McCarthy be chosen Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.
“It started, obviously, because I grew up on a newsroom floor watching my dad work with reporters and watching them piece a news show together,” Clooney said when asked by a journalist last week if he made the movie for his father.
“And Murrow was always the high-water mark that everyone aims for. It was certainly a tip of the hat to my dad and the sacrifices he made over the years. So, yes, it was for him.”
Someone who loudly criticized the paparazzi involved in Princess Diana’s fatal car crash and who has boycotted media outlets that have filmed or taken pictures of him without his permission, Clooney insisted he doesn’t think most accredited press are doing a bad job today. He admitted, however, that he thinks their time and talents are too often wasted on fluffy celebrity gossip rather than hard-hitting news stories. That said, he confessed he understands this is not necessarily their choice, since journalists report the kind of material their publications or networks deem important. He also pointed out how editors, reporters and producers have always struggled with the management who, in turn, has to answer to shareholders and sponsors.
“It has always been and will always be the battle between corporate and information, and it’s tricky and complicated and I don’t know if there are any great answers,” the 44-year-old actor said.
Conceding there are far more TV programs, radio shows and magazines, not to mention web-sites, dedicated to celebrity culture than there were half-a-century ago, Clooney maintained that there has always been a morbid fascination with the lives of the rich and famous.
“Don’t you think that that’s not new?” he mused. “In reality, there has always been a driving element (to cover celebrity news.) I thought I saw some real teeth in journalism (covering) Hurricane Katrina, but I think we go up and down. There was a tremendous amount of celebrity journalism before Sept. 11 and then it seemed to stop and suddenly there were some real conversations going on. I think it’s cyclical. I’m not one to attack journalists since my father has been one for a long time and I’m fine with doing movies that are fluff at times to help get real news out… If sending Brad Pitt to Africa is going to get millions of people to understand more about the plight of (these people,) then that’s part of the trade-off and I think that’s OK.
“There’s still great reporting going on by a bunch of people,” he continued. “The problem is that I don’t think anybody is ever going to have 40 million people watching him again. Honestly, I think that’s the difference. That may be good that there won’t ever be a ‘most trusted man in America,’ again, depending on who that man is, but I just don’t think they could get that many people to watch it to change policy.”
Gossip vs. News
Acknowledging he, too, has heard reports about Brad Pitt marrying Angelina Jolie at his home in Italy, Clooney pointed to the story as an example of how people might be paying too much attention to celebrity stuff, as opposed to hard news. Offering no further information about the wedding tale, he emphasized how he tries to ignore sensational headlines, particularly when they pertain to him and his friends.
“It’s a real pain in the ass to have a bunch of photographers hanging out outside of your house,” Rosemary Clooney’s nephew confided. “I’m not complaining, I’m just saying it’s a rotten thing. If you did it for a day, you’d go, ‘This isn’t very fun.’ They’re sneaky. They pop out of places. They don’t necessarily try to catch you doing something stupid, they try to create you doing something stupid. But I must forever defend their right to be there because the idea of stopping them is so much more dangerous in that first step towards censorship. It’s like if you’re burning the first book, even if that first book is ‘Mein Kempf’… Those are the things we have to eat if we’re public figures. It’s a drag, but to try and take steps to stop them… That doesn’t mean if they’re committing crime. That’s another thing. But in general, celebrity journalism is something you just have to take because stopping it can be censorship.”
Advice from Dad
The actor said that when he set out to make this film, he sat down with his father– who also introduced films on the American Movie Classics network for five years–and discussed what approach he should take in telling Murrow’s story.
“He just said, ‘Treat it like a journalist and double-check, double-source every scene,'” Clooney recalled. “So that when the people who want to marginalize it and they are out there-not marginalize the film, they can do that all they want-we wanted to make sure that every scene happened and that’s important because there is sort of a revisionist history going on that McCarthy was right and Murrow was a traitor. Page Six actually wrote a nice story about that and Anne Coulter certainly has a lovely book about Murrow getting the story wrong and it was important to recalibrate fact, purely fact. So my dad said, ‘Get the facts right.'”
One of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals, the “Ocean’s Eleven” and “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” actor said he tried to stay away from editorializing in the film or even putting it into a large-scale historical context. Clooney said this objective story-telling technique is in line with how he expresses his own political views; he presents what he knows and lets others decide what they think about it.
“Listen, I don’t hold press conferences about my political views,” Clooney said. “I’ll do an interview. If someone asks me, I’ll answer (a political question) because I think that’s my right, but I’m not trying to force people to believe what I believe.”
Asked if he is at all worried that his opinions might derail his career, he said:
“(Fox TV personality) Bill O’Reilly did a show about how my career was over. He had some producer I’d never seen before saying she would never hire me. I have no idea who she is, but I’m not worried about that. If it all goes away tomorrow, I can just sell my house and live in a nice apartment.”
Incidentally, Clooney pointed out, O’Reilly, one of his harshest critics, recently attended a party with TV titans like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Les Moonves and Jeff Zucker to celebrate the movie’s upcoming release.
“Bill O’Reilly said it was fair,” Clooney reported. “He said we treated it fairly.”
Although the actor is more than willing to help out behind the scenes, he said he has no intention of stumping for those he supports, mainly because he fears his association with them could hurt their chances of election.
“I’m not out to hurt a candidate,” he explained. “(Democratic presidential candidate John) Kerry called me and was like: ‘Hop on the train. We’re going to take a train ride,’ and I thought, ‘Jheesh, I will do more harm than good.'”
Politicians Gone Wild?
Given his passion for politics, it might not be too foolish to think Clooney might have his eye on a public office, one that has been occupied by his fellow actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood or Ronald Reagan.
“I think that’s a ridiculous idea, don’t you?” Clooney deadpanned. “I think I should run on the ‘Yes-I-did-it ticket.'”
Might he be referring to how People magazine named him “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1997?
“No, worse than that,” the former “ER” doc groaned. “It starts with ‘And I drank the bong water.'”
Just in case you were wondering, Clooney has also ruled out a mid-life career switch to journalism, even though he answered right away whom he would have liked to interview if he had ever gotten the chance.
“I’d have to say Jack Kennedy,” he revealed. “That would have been fun. Did you ever watch his press conference after the Bay of Pigs? It’s amazing! His first act as president and it’s the Bay of Pigs and he comes out and says, ‘What happened yesterday, that was my fault and I take full responsibility and the whole press corps sat there stunned.’ And the first question was, ‘Is it your fault?’ And he said, ‘I just said that.’ And then they sit there for a minute and you hear, ‘What’s Jackie going to wear….?’ That would have been a fun interview.”
One person Clooney said he wants nothing to do with is former family friend and one-time Cincinnati mayor, Jerry Springer.
“I’ll tell you something funny about that idiot,” Clooney remarked. “He was a friend of ours. He was sort of this kind of Kennedy Democrat. Really sharp. Really articulate. My dad gave him his first broadcasting job. He had liked him and then Springer wrote a check to a hooker. Now that’s dumb and he came out in kind of a Kennedy way and said: ‘What I just did? That was dumb.’ He quit and then he ran again and he won by a landslide and then he got into that show and slowly it changed and he changed.”
The actor admitted he snubbed Springer when he ran into the trashy talk-show host at a recent social function. Recalling how Springer tried to chat him up, Clooney said he shrugged him off, telling him: “‘I’m ashamed of you.
‘My father’s ashamed of you. We’re ashamed of what you’ve become. We’re ashamed of what you do. You, more than anyone, know what you’re doing.’ There are the Jenny Joneses of the world who actually think they’re performing some sort of a public service, but he knows better.”
A hit at the Toronto and Venice film festivals, “Good Night, And Good Luck” kicked off the New York Film Festival last week. It opens in select theaters Oct. 7.