Hot on The Story

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005

George Clooney is talking, talking, talking.

The man sure can talk -- enthusiastically, at length and, it must be said, often charmingly. At the moment, he's verbally bouncing all over the place: his career, the state of American journalism, his sometime nemesis Bill O'Reilly, Iraq. And, oh, his aching back.

"I wish it was one of those things where you just thought it was just a back issue, and you throw your back out again," he says. "The problem is, I've had all this surgery, and there's still seals in these little tiny holes, and when those get blown, the spinal fluid leaks."

Um, George. Too much informa --

"Yeah," he goes on, quite cheerfully, considering, "anything you do, if you just lift a chair, you can blow that seal. And then it's two months of injections. They take 30 ccs of blood out of your arm and shoot it directly into your spine to coagulate the holes and seal 'em up."


Clooney is talking about his back because it played a recurring role in his latest project, which is why he's doing all that talking in the first place. Clooney began directing, and acting in, "Good Night, and Good Luck" nine days after undergoing neck and back surgery early this year (he also wrote the movie, with Grant Heslov). Without getting as clinical as Clooney can about it, it was a painful experience.

Nevertheless, Clooney was determined to make the film, which opens in Washington on Friday, for several reasons -- some personal, some political, some professional. The movie is a dramatization of the events surrounding legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's confrontation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Communist-hunting conservative, on Murrow's "See It Now" programs in 1954. Actor David Strathairn plays the gloomy, world-weary Murrow. Through archival footage, McCarthy plays McCarthy at his slurry, alcoholic peak. Clooney is in the movie, too, as Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, but this isn't a Clooney vehicle. Friendly is an unglamorous secondary character that Clooney decided to play, he says, largely to help attract financing for the picture. Plus, he adds, "I always wanted to play a Jew!"

"Good Night, and Good Luck" -- the title is Murrow's sign-off -- is certainly an accomplished piece of work. Strathairn won best actor at the recent Venice Film Festival, and Clooney and Heslov won the screenplay award. But this isn't "Ocean's Thirteen," a sure-fire, bound-for-box-office-glory kind of flick. It's small (there is but one exterior scene) and -- heavens! -- thoughtful. Clooney acknowledges that many people at test screenings had no idea who Murrow and McCarthy were. Some even asked for the name of the actor who played McCarthy. "We want to take out ads in the trades saying, 'For your consideration for best supporting actor, Joe McCarthy,' with quotes from Time magazine saying, 'He's mesmerizing!' " Clooney quips as he digs into a breakfast of bacon and eggs at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. The personal part of the story is Clooney's own connection to the news business. His father, Nick, was a TV talk show host and anchorman for many years, most prominently at WKRC in Cincinnati, where his mother, Nina, also worked. Young George hung around the news desk starting at the age of 5 and was variously a cue-card boy, a teleprompter operator and occasionally newscast floor manager. He studied journalism at Northern Kentucky University and did some reporting for an Ohio cable-access channel. But his journalism career was brief; when his cousin Miguel Ferrer (the son of actor Jose and singer Rosemary Clooney) got him a small part in a movie, Clooney began thinking about acting, not newscasting.

Clooney sees his father's professional struggles -- constant fights with management and sponsors, battles to keep entertainment from encroaching on the news -- reflected in Murrow's.

Those tensions are prominent themes of the film, which was shot in black-and-white and made for the Hollywood equivalent of spare change, $7.5 million. Murrow was a journalistic giant after his radio broadcasts during the German blitz of London in World War II. But in the new TV era, CBS exploited his gravitas by having him host a frivolous, and hugely popular, celebrity interview program called "Person to Person." (Murrow, in an actual exchange captured in the film, innocently asks Liberace, "When will you be getting married, Lee?") When Murrow finally decides to challenge McCarthy's bullying methods on "See It Now," he has to navigate around his nervous sponsor, Alcoa, and the even more nervous head of CBS, William Paley (played by Frank Langella).

The movie gets many of the period details right -- the Brylcreem hair and starchy white shirts, the casual office sexism. Patricia Clarkson, playing the only female member of Murrow's merry band of newsmen, is regularly ordered to fetch newspapers and coffee. Cigarette smoke curls through almost every scene, including Murrow's on-air reports. Strathairn, a ubiquitous supporting actor and veteran of such films as "Silkwood" and "L.A. Confidential," says he smoked between 30 and 50 cigarettes a day during the five-week shoot. In real life, Strathairn's a nonsmoker. In real life, Murrow died of lung cancer.

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