NEW YORK – Most have forgotten CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's (search) "See It Now" broadcasts that took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Not George Clooney (search) — he even sees those '50s political battles recurring in today's America.
And in "Good Night, and Good Luck," (search) Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov offer up ways we can connect the then-vs.-now dots between communists and terrorists, McCarthy and the Bush administration, loyalty oaths and the Patriot Act.
"Then it was the threat of communism; now it's the threat of terrorism — though I think terrorism is a more real threat," Heslov said. "But even through all that, the question is how much of our civil liberties are we willing to give up."
Clooney cites his father — Nick, a longtime local anchorman who became known nationally as a host on cable's American Movie Classics — as a huge inspiration for directing and co-writing the film about the great god of broadcast journalism and the eponymous avatar of McCarthyism.
"This was an important period of time in (my father's) history, in shaping what he was as a newsman. It was the high-water mark," Clooney told The Associated Press. "And when I started to do it, my dad said, 'Be very careful with your facts.' And so we double-sourced every single scene."
Which may add to the feature film's documentary patina, he said.
"I also thought it was a good time to have those debates again about government using fear to erode away civil liberties, which happens every 30 to 40 years. I thought it was a good time to talk about responsibilities of the Fourth Estate and always questioning authority — which at times we shirk. And I say `we' as in we Americans asking that of them," said Clooney, who co-stars as Murrow producer Fred Friendly.
Still, Clooney — who made his directing debut with 2002's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" — maintained that his movie is not meant as an "indictment" of today's news media: "I just wanted to show when it was done really well."
In separate interviews, Clooney and Heslov (who plays Don Hewitt, the eventual creator of "60 Minutes") both talked about how political attitudes and journalistic boldness are cyclical.
"This administration, because of 9/11, got a pass on tough questions," Clooney said. "Bush One didn't, Clinton certainly didn't, Carter didn't, Ford didn't.
But ask anything challenging about the 2001 terrorist attacks or the war in Iraq, he said, and "somehow you were unpatriotic."
"That's now gone away a little bit," the 44-year-old actor-filmmaker said. "Not just because of the growing unpopularity of the war, but also because as a country we always in time of fear seem to overreact a little bit. You know, Pearl Harbor happens and we round up all the Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps. We panic. We always do — a little bit. And then we come to our senses."
Shot in black and white and with most of the action occurring, almost claustrophobically, at CBS News headquarters amid billowing cigarette smoke, Clooney's movie basically takes a snapshot in time. It's bookended by a 1958 speech Murrow gave about TV's social responsibility (otherwise it's just an instrument to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate") and flashes back to 1953 and '54 — when Murrow began focusing on McCarthy.
Heslov noted that Murrow was "a little late to the game" of tackling McCarthy. Others, including The Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, had targeted him long before that.
"But it took a Murrow, because Murrow had an audience unlike any of these other guys," Heslov said.
Daniel Schorr — one of "Murrow's boys" (his proteges who included such big names as William L. Shirer, Charles Collingwood and Howard K. Smith) — told the AP: "Murrow remains a symbol of the greatest in journalism, a dedication to the truth."
And Murrow still means a lot to him. "Whenever I'm not sure about something, the ethics of something, the question I ask myself is, `What would Murrow have done? What would Murrow say?' It seems strange after all these years that I still have him as a kind of symbol and an emblem to live by, but I do," said Schorr, who at 89 still works as a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" (the title was Murrow's signoff) depicts how Murrow began with a program about an Air Force lieutenant who was dismissed because his father and sister supposedly read subversive papers — all without a trial and without the unsealing of charges against him.
Murrow (portrayed by David Strathairn, who won best actor for the performance at this year's Venice Film Festival) as well as Friendly and the rest of the "See It Now" crew decided to produce another show, even as the pressure mounted and they wrung their hands over anything potentially incriminating in their own backgrounds. They finally went ahead after Murrow said in a staff meeting: "We're going to go with this story. Because the terror is right here in this room."
CBS founder/owner William S. Paley (Frank Langella) felt Murrow was giving him a "stomach ache" — but just before the show aired, Paley called to say: "I'm with you tonight, Ed. And I'm with you tomorrow."
Paley's agita came, of course, from the always uneasy polarity between art and commerce, entertainment and news.
As shown in "Good Night, and Good Luck," not only did Murrow host "See It Now" but he also did "Person to Person," an often fluffy show in which he went into celebrities' homes by live remote and interviewed the likes of Liberace ("When will you be getting married, Lee?") and Gina Lollobrigida — making Murrow not only the godfather of the world's Brian Williamses but also the Pat O'Briens.
Just as Murrow did the shows he had to do so he could do the programs he wanted to do, Clooney acts in popcorn movies like "Ocean's Eleven" and "Ocean's Twelve" in part so he can produce weightier movies.
"The `Oceans' allow us to go and make this film," Heslov allowed.
Clooney, the former "ER" star whose films also include "Three Kings," "The Perfect Storm," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty," said he certainly doesn't expect oceanic box office for this $7.5 million film.
Yet he and Heslov hope that people will glean a bit of history, especially since only 20 percent of their test audiences had even heard of Murrow and 40 percent of McCarthy — or McCarthyism.
"That's like a word in the dictionary now," Heslov said. "It doesn't surprise me, but it makes me kinda sad. And it makes me a little frightened."