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."
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.