Confessions of a Democratic Mind

George Clooney presses for freedom of the press

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 at a recent premiere. "I think it's more important to have a free press than a free government."

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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 GuantŠnamo 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 Josť Ferrer was listed inRed 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.

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