Clooney In Black And White

Actor-writer-director George Clooney draws on period footage, 1950s newspapers and his father's example to conjure the spirit of newsman Edward R. Murrow.

October 09, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- GEORGE CLOONEY'S at the top of his game with Good Night, and Good Luck, a high-tension and high-intelligence Cold War drama that he directed and co-wrote, which opens in Baltimore on Friday.

He's even at the top of his game pushing it to the press. He appears quick, smart and amiable, despite a back injury he suffered while packing 30 extra pounds for the role of a CIA agent in the forthcoming Syriana. "You'll see exactly when, where and how it happens," he promises, and blames himself for trying to move his body at 208 pounds the way he does at his usual 178. (In Good Night, and Good Luck, filmed shortly afterward, he's still packing 20 extra pounds.)

During Syriana, a fact-based account of agent Robert Baer's frustration over CIA funds being cut as terrorism spread, Clooney ripped the dura mater: the membrane that coats the spinal cord and brain. He's endured several operations, including the insertion of webbing, and frequent and continuing procedures to retain his spinal fluid. Beset by shriveling headaches ever since, at age 44 he remains relaxed, alert and optimistic ("I'll be fine") as he gears up for one more set of interviews in a long, narrow room off a hotel restaurant.

Clooney used to say, "I don't like to share my personal life," because "it wouldn't be personal if I shared it."

That's not really true. After a year of literally back-breaking work, he's glad to tell you, for example, how lucky he is to retreat to a house in Italy, near Lake Como. "They're an older country than we are, and they know how to do it better" -- with "it" meaning "life." He fell hard for Italy as soon as he saw hard-hats walking back from a construction site at the end of the day carrying loaves of bread and bottles of wine and flowers. "They know how to celebrate a meal," he says, while pouring coffee for his interviewer. "We're jamming a hoagie down our face while we're trying to write a story."

More important, Clooney is not at all abashed when it comes to celebrating one of his closest relationships: his bond with his father, who was a high-profile newsman in Cincinnati while Clooney was growing up in Northern Kentucky. George Clooney speaks of Nick Clooney with the genuine respect of a son who sees what he gets from his old man. His father ran as a Democrat for a Kentucky congressional seat last election and lost to a Republican business consultant. He's been an old-fashioned liberal for half a century, critical of mainstream media's corruption and complacency, and outspoken on the government's need to guarantee equal rights for all.

As Clooney discusses his tribute to crusading 1950s broadcasters, Good Night, and Good Luck, and how it intersects with his dad's career, it's as if he's paying tribute to a Greatest Generation of journalists -- and of moviemakers, too.

Good Night, and Good Luck depicts CBS news pioneer Edward R. Murrow taking down the Wisconsin demagogue Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy at the height of McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunt. It's a thrilling, one-of-a-kind, saturnine star turn for David Strathairn as Murrow.

Much of the film's power comes from Murrow's own writing: "It's like the stuff Paddy Chayefsky wrote back then," says Clooney. "It still holds up." (Chayefsky was the best loved TV playwright of the 1950s: Clooney recently announced that he intends to remake Chayefsky's 1976 movie satire of television, Network, as a live TV special for CBS.)

But the guts of Good Night, and Good Luck -- the base that makes Strathairn's performance possible -- came from Clooney assuming the role he saw his father play as a news director and editor. As Murrow's behind-the-scenes partner and generalissimo, Fred Friendly, Clooney put his supporting actors through the paces of real segment producers and reporters. Each day for the first two weeks of filming he'd announce to men like Grant Heslov (who also produced and co-wrote the movie, and plays Don Hewitt), and Robert Downey Jr. (who plays reporter-producer Joseph Wershba) that they'd have to act as if it were a particular day 50 years ago -- say, "Oct. 14, 1954."

He got each of them full copies of The New York Times from that date, and had them pluck the stories they thought worthy of broadcast. "Over their cigarettes and coffee, they'd tear out the items they thought were worth pursuing, type up their pitches and argue about getting them on the air and placing them near the top of the show. The Metro stories always came in last," Clooney chuckles, talking journalist-to-journalist, "because this was a national program. Of course, where my father was, they'd have come in first."

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