George Clooney Goes Back to J-School
George Clooney, Grant Heslov and David Strathairn of the film "Good Night, and Good Luck" dropped by New York University's journalism department to talk about Murrow, McCarthy and the state of the press.
George Clooney entered the hall of 19 University Place, stomped his feet, rubbed his hands together briskly, and barked, “What is it, 12 degrees out? How do you people live here?” with a mixture of humor and gravity that colored his discussion with a select assembly of New York University journalism students Dec. 15.
The actor, repeatedly voted one of People magazine’s sexiest men, was dressed impeccably in black dress pants and a matching blazer over a black mock-turtleneck. He was thinner than his onscreen personas in his recent films “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” — the latter the subject of his visit to NYU. Along with surprise appearances by co-writer, Grant Heslov, and David Strathairn, the actor who played broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, Clooney spoke about his film that Salon.com praised for making “a passionate argument for a revitalized press.”
The university had originally requested permission to show “Good Night, and Good Luck” on campus as an educational tool. The studio declined, but offered a tantalizing consolation prize: What if Clooney spoke directly to students about Murrow, McCarthysim and his take on the issues facing journalism?
Clooney spoke from a solid background in journalism. His father, Nick Clooney, was a TV newscaster and frequently brought his son onto the set.
“I grew up on the floor of a newsroom in Cincinnati, Ohio,” he said. “My father wasn’t making a lot of money, and in the summer, we had no babysitter.” He hung around the studio into his adolescence, becoming a floor director and working on “Dialing for Dollars.” He also ran the teleprompter for his dad and watched as his father fought the endless struggle between reporting entertainment and reporting hard news.
“He used to say it was a battle that was waged. It was never ‘won,’” Clooney said.
“Everyone respected my father and always has. I was able very quickly to get a mic in my hand.”
He studied journalism at Northern Kentucky University and briefly hosted a cable-access show. “I only lacked the talent and the skill,” he joked, and the crowd of cub reporters laughed easily with him.
The intimate gathering was scheduled for a 120-seat auditorium at 19 University Place, with an overflow room that could house an extra 70. When the news broke last month that Clooney was speaking at the school, however, almost 300 e-mail requests flooded the graduate director’s inbox the first two days, with more streaming in over the next couple of weeks. Eager students name-dropped, pleaded and jokingly offered bribes. One even wrote a haiku. In the end, a lottery for tickets had to be conducted to assign students and faculty seating.
Clooney, Heslov and Strathairn sat with Marcia Rock, the university’s broadcast director responsible for the noteworthy event, in an auditorium where students and teachers filled the seats and lined the walls. Rock led the discussion, and the three guests bandied humorously with each other and the audience in between serious assertions on the current need for journalism, the fourth estate, to watchdog the government and ask the tough questions, even as their film features Murrow confronting Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954.
“Power unchecked corrupts,” said Clooney in an interview backstage. “That has historically been the responsibility of the fourth estate — whoever was in power at the time, you went after him because you have to.”
Clooney told his audience that as a young journalist, he was the sort of interviewer who would read robotically off his list of questions, whereas his father would actually listen to people, engage them and adjust the interview in kind.
Comfortable before the camera, however, Clooney took a small role a cousin got him in a feature film and moved to Los Angeles in 1982 to pursue a career in acting. He still remembers his journalism roots, however, which can be seen in “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” — movies that encourage the audience to contemplate the issues at hand, from the war in Iraq to the state of the press.
In fact, Clooney and Heslov approached “Good Night, and Good Luck” as any reporter would approach a story. They conducted extensive research, calling people who were there for Murrow’s infamous broadcast against McCarthy, including Joseph and Shirley Wershba. “They knew all the players and all the little stories,” Clooney said. They watched archival footage of Murrow’s weekly newscast “See It Now” as well as the fluffier “Person to Person.”
“We double-sourced every scene in this film,” said Clooney. “There is a small but loud group of people out there who think Murrow was a traitor.” He scratched his eyebrow, and advised the young journalists to double-source their own research and reporting. “This is a good trick. My father used to say, ‘Take the gun out of the other guy’s hand.’”
They wanted to do an honest and accurate reproduction of those tense couple of weeks at CBS when Murrow’s team took on McCarthy, rather than a biopic or an interpretation.
“We weren’t doing the ‘Ray’ version of Murrow,” Clooney said to applause. “We wanted to talk about the issues and the questions.”
On set, the actors were given papers from the 1950s to read, and even practiced writing lede sentences. Many of Strathairn’s lines were taken directly from transcripts of Murrow’s speeches and broadcasts.
“When I first walked on the set, I didn’t know much at all about Murrow,” Strathairn said, “but the actor playing Joseph R. McCarthy was pretty well cast.” The audience laughed because Clooney and Heslov had chosen to use live footage of the infamous senator, even as Murrow did on that legendary broadcast, rather than cast an actor.
“If we had an actor play McCarthy … his behavior was just so bizarre that no one would believe an actor was not making this up,” Strathairn said. “Murrow decided to use McCarthy’s own words against him, and that, I think, was a brilliant choice.”
When asked if he thought he had done Murrow justice, Strathairn turned decidedly more serious.
“I certainly hope so,” he said. “I was 5 years old when this event happened. I learned about him in school.” He studied archival footage and read biographies, speeches and transcripts to nail down the character and walked away with a deepened respect for a journalist that was once “the most trusted man in America.”
“I have this cockamamie image of him as the cigarette,” said Strathairn of the reporter’s most famous prop (Murrow often smoked onscreen). “People see him as this elegant thing, poised and straight, and at the tip of it, something is burning.” The room was dead silent, hanging upon his words. “Inside this man, something is burning, and it eventually burned him from the inside out.” Murrow later died of lung cancer.
“He was the package,” Strathairn said with reverence. “He was very, very amazing. Speaking with his words was quite a privilege.”
The three speakers worked well off one another, telling jokes and keeping the audience enthralled and amused.
On why this movie is performing so well: “The girls are showing up to see David,” said Clooney with a straight face, gesturing toward Strathairn.
“Also because of the black-and-white film,” Heslov laughed.
“And the car crashes,” Strathairn added.
When the floor was opened to questions and answers from students, the tone became more serious again.
“I like good entertainment as much as anybody,” Clooney said, explaining that he sees entertaining as his leverage for creating more serious pieces. He noted that Murrow had had to host “Person to Person” — which he abhorred — to continue his more serious subject matter on “See It Now.” “There are deals that you guys are going to have to make to get the stories you want out,” he said. “It’s going to make you sick sometimes. It’s what you have to do. That’s the deal everybody makes.”
Clooney brought up the Patriot Act and compared its threat to civil liberties to McCarthy’s manipulation of Americans’ fear after World War II.
“We lose our minds every 30 or 40 years,” he began before his microphone cut out with a squeak of static. “And we lose our speaker systems, ” he cracked, before continuing. “After Pearl Harbor, we had the detainment camps, but later we figure it out. ‘Oh, that wasn’t very sporting of us.’ Eventually, we get it right.”
But this temporary insanity “usually comes out of fear. McCarthy capitalized on fear.”
That is why it is the job of the press to keep the public’s head straight. Yet today’s press, he worried, is too hesitant to take the kind of risks and make the kind of stand that Murrow made in the 1950s. “They lack curiosity, and they lack the fortitude to go and ask the tough questions,” Clooney said. “It’s a dangerous plan. Power unchallenged corrupts. It is your job,” he addressed the students, “to challenge whoever is in power. At the very least, all of these issues … since the 1950s, I realized, nothing is different. It’s cyclical.”
Strathairn said: “We throw it back to you. The front line you guys are packing up for, hedged on all sides by what? Competition from other people, money, the time you’re allowed to a story, and that’s just the surface.” It is becoming “A world of bytes, undigested. It’s really a very slippery slope.”
Clooney wrapped it up, “Journalists ask me, ‘Well, how do we fix it?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’m an actor. It’s up to you. Fix it! Goddammit, help us!’”
At the conclusion of the talk, the three guests stood up as the room broke into applause. Camera phones flashed, to the chagrin of event planners who had specifically prohibited cameras and autographs. “Well, good night everybody!” said Clooney, waving cheerfully.
“And good luck?” cracked a student sitting in the front row. Clooney gave a little groan, shook his head and chuckled.
“Yeah,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “Good night, and good luck.”