Strathairn’s Latest Role Broadcasts Distaste for Today’s Newsmedia

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When George Clooney set out to make “Good Night, and Good Luck,” he wanted to do more than just tell the story of the television journalists who brought down Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s. Clooney wanted “to make a film as a journalist would make a film,” star David Strathairn—who plays the protagonist Edward R. Murrow—tells a roundtable of reporters in Boston last month. “Everything in the movie was double-sourced.”

But what’s good policy for investigative journalists can be awfully limiting for actors. “Good Night, and Good Luck” isn’t just fact-checked—it’s also often as dry as a folded sheet of newsprint. Even Clooney’s visuals are rigorously period-accurate. “It had to be in black and white, because no one really ever saw them in color,” Strathairn says.

He could just as well be talking about the emotional palette that he uses to bring CBS News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to life on screen. Strathairn’s performance never strays outside of the solemn professionalism of Murrow’s broadcasts, whether or not the film’s television cameras are running.

“We couldn’t indulge in what he was like at home,” Strathairn explains. He doesn’t even get to play against a human foil—McCarthy, Murrow’s main antagonist, appears only in archival footage of his clownishly fascistic Congressional hearings.

Surprisingly, Strathairn says today’s ideological rifts were far from Clooney’s mind while the film was shot. “George didn’t want to make a political movie,” Strathairn maintains. “He doesn’t want to proselytize…His intention was not to polarize at all.”

The message of Clooney’s excellent script is in fact anything but gentle: journalists have a responsibility to stand up against governmental abuses, even if that seems to compromise their objectivity. But Strathairn deserves credit for saving the film from tendentiousness, delivering Murrow’s tirades with a calm, persuasive authority that’s unvaried but never wooden.

In person, Strathairn has plenty to say about the cable-based infotainment circus that has succeeded Murrow’s straight-forward, hard-hitting network news broadcasts. “If Murrow was this crystal ball, you just dropped it and it’s shattered,” he says. “There are pieces of it everywhere, but they pick up a different light…The press has just been spun and pressed and squeezed and embedded.”

He has particularly harsh words for neo-con talking head Ann Coulter, an unregenerate McCarthy apologist. “She’s out in her own wilderness,” he says.

Strathairn says his distaste for today’s complacent news media gave his performance as Murrow “a bit of despondency…a bit of ruefulness.”

“You can feel a bruise,” he says. “It’s almost as if he knew what was coming, and trying so hard to stop it from happening—he had such high hopes for the medium, the media.”

Still, the landscape hasn’t changed so much that Strathairn’s arresting performance could escape recognition. In early September, he received best-actor honors at the sixty-second Venice Biennale—a film festival held in Italy, a country with its own right-wing spin machine to worry about.

“Venice loved it,” he says. “They all thought it was about [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi.”

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.