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Jeffrey Brown talks with actor and director George Clooney about his new movie that focuses on journalist Edward R. Murrow's pursuit of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
DAVID STRATHRAIN (as Edward R. Murrow):
The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night. And good luck.
In the film, "Good Night & Good Luck," the year is 1954. The scene, the CBS program "See It Now," the protagonist, Edward R. Murrow and Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Any man who has been given the honor of being promoted to general and who says I will protect another general who protects communists, is not fit to wear that uniform, General!
McCarthy was at the height of his campaign to expose alleged communists within American government and society. Murrow, already famous as a war-time radio correspondent —
This is Edward Murrow speaking from Vienna.
— was now pioneering television news.
Somebody is going to go down, have you checked your facts? Are you sure you're on safe ground?
The issues raised in the film, where to draw the line between reporting and editorializing, and the balance of news and entertainment in the media company, are still with us today.
The next show is going to be about Senator McCarthy, we're going to go right at him.
But when director George Clooney, who also performs in the movie as Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, first took the film for a test screening, he found a problem. Many in the audience didn't know of Murrow and McCarthy.
We even had about 10 percent of the people asking us, because, you know, we use actual McCarthy footage, he plays himself in the film, and we had about 10 percent of the audience asking us who the actor was playing Joe McCarthy.
Clooney, of course, is one of Hollywood's biggest stars. From his days as Dr. Doug Ross on the TV series "ER" — to movie blockbusters like the recent capers "Oceans 11" —
You bet big and then you take the house.
Been practicing this haven't you?
A little bit.
That was good, I liked it.
And "Oceans 12." But he's produced and directed smaller films as well.
I've never known a television producer before, I'm impressed.
His first was "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." He's also the son of a former local news anchorman, Nick Clooney, as he told us when we talked recently at the American University's Greenburg Theater in Washington.
We grew up at WKRC in Cincinnati, Ohio. My dad was the anchorman and my mom had a television show there too. And nobody gets any money, you know, people think of that as a very glamorous thing, I think my dad was making $10,000 a year then, 1974-75. So nobody had babysitters. So as our summers, the babysitter was WKRC. So I was a cue card boy when I was eight years old, and I was a floor director when I was nine and ten, and I ran the TelePrompTer on the news for my dad when I was eleven-years-old.
Clooney's deep interest in journalism extended to a fascination with Murrow.
Murrow taking on McCarthy was one of the great high points in broadcast journalism, along with Cronkite stepping out from behind his desk and talking about how Vietnam doesn't work were two moments in broadcast journalism that you could point directly to and say actually changed American policy.
Well, what is it exactly that you're trying to say about journalism as Murrow practiced it?
I don't know a reporter that doesn't want to break a big news story. It is constantly the battle between commerce and news, or keeping entertainment from pushing the news off the air.
I was looking to open a debate, to have a discussion, to be able to talk about issues that I think are important. It's simply saying, as Murrow says in the film, we have to find a way to find a safe place between the protection of the individual and the protection of the state at the same time.
In the movie, Murrow, played by David Strathairn, decides to expose the tactics of McCarthy by using senator's own words. Murrow's boss, William Paley, the legendary head of CBS, is by turn supportive and plenty worried about the impact the report will have on his network. Paley is played by Frank Langela.
Bill, it's time, show our cards.
My cards. You lose, what happens? Five guys find themselves out of work. I'm responsible for a hell of a lot more than five god damned reporters. Let it go. McCarthy will self-destruct —
Bill, you said corporate would not interfere with editorial and that the news was to be left —
We don't make the news, we report the news.
But Paley would relent and the program aired, intensifying a public outcry against McCarthy. In late 1954, the senator was censured by his colleagues in the U.S. Senate. Clooney chose to shoot "Good Night & Good Luck" in black and white, like 50s television, but he knows that the portraits of the crusading journalist is actually a study in gray.
The film shows Murrow doing his other weekly program, person to person, in which he chatted with the rich and famous.
I want to some day find the perfect mate, and settle down to what I hope will be a marriage that will be blessed.
It's seen now as a forerunner to today's onslaught of celebrity journalism.
He hated the show, but it bought him the ability to continue to do "See It Now." I've done that, I do films that are big commercial films so they can do smaller films, and I understand that.
Is that in fact part of the deal that you yourself make?
Sure. Because I don't want to wake up at 70-years-old and have that retrospective about me be, well, we had ten films that opened number one, because who cares how they opened. The truth is, "It's a Wonderful Life" was a big bomb, you know. I want to be involved in films that have staying power.
You don't want it to read "Oceans 11," "Oceans 12," "Oceans 15."
I make no apologies for those films because I actually like entertainment, and I think if those are my failures, fine, I've got some bad ones, I got Batman and Robin. I almost destroyed the Bat franchise. I fine it heartening to be able to do a junket for this film, and, you know, I've done a lot of junkets for films and not have to talk about who I'm dating or if I work out.
I wasn't going to ask you that.
The answers are yes, and I can't tell you.
I think you have the order wrong.
No, yes, I'm dating and no, I can't tell you if I work out or not.
It's simply a loyalty offer.
And to America.
There is inevitably a political side to a film that looks at a period of history in which many Americans then and now believe civil liberties were threatened in the hunt for communists.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof. We will not walk in fear one of another. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve.
Some conservative commentators have recently suggested that McCarthy's tactics and targets were right all along. For his part, Clooney rejects such talk. He's known as a prominent liberal in the Hollywood community, but in his film, he makes no explicit connection between the McCarthy crusade and the current political climate.
I don't think I should.
I felt if I keep this in a historical context, and people want to talk about the parallels, you can. It's fairly easy to do. If I brought it up to date and said this is my opinion, then what I've done is I've forced 52 percent of the country to just go, forget it, I don't want to watch it.
What's the role, though, and here you are a big public figure, and we're in Washington where public figures, movie stars, often come to testify about one cause or another. And some people just look at that and say why should I listen to that person?
Well, they have every right to say that. I have nothing to gain by saying things. I have everything to lose. It's very easy to keep quiet, and make a decent living and live in my villa in Italy. I'm terrified of waking up at 65 years old, which is getting closer, and to wake up and say I didn't do the things that I was supposed to do.
The things you're supposed to do.
Yeah, you're supposed to do — as a citizen, not as a famous person. I hate the word celebrity, because it has this strange connotation. But as someone who is well-known, I can bring focus to that, and people — of course I know they're using me if they want me to show G-8. It's not because they think I'm incredibly well versed in the issues of corruption by Mugabe and, you know — they want me there because I can help bring focus, and I do.
And I try to, as a son of a journalist, when I take on those causes, to be really well informed so that they can't marginalize you or make you an idiot along the way. I can make myself an idiot on my own.
George Clooney, thanks for talking to us.
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