'Good Night, and Good Luck': Anatomy of a Witch Hunt

Alex Chadwick talks with writer Grant Heslov and actor David Strathairn about their new movie, Good Night, and Good Luck. The film, directed by actor and sophomore director George Clooney, tells the story of broadcast journalism icon Edward R. Murrow's 1954 battle with Sen. Joseph McCarthy over the senator's controversial "witch hunt" for communist infiltrators.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick, a radio newsman, but not like this radio newsman.

(Soundbite of radio news broadcast)

Mr. EDWARD R. MURROW (Journalist; Author): This is Trafalgar Square. The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air-raid siren.

CHADWICK: That is Edward R. Murrow, the late World War II CBS reporter who performed so brilliantly then that he's practically been regarded as the St. Peter of broadcast news ever since. When the war ended, he came back to the States--and big changes.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) If you wanna have fun, come home with me. You can stay all night and play with my TV. TV is the thing that's here. TV is the thing that's here. Radio is great, but it's out of date. TV is the thing that's here.

CHADWICK: Murrow was well-equipped for TV, perhaps too well. His dashing good looks, his presence on camera the equal of his command of the microphone. But his intelligence, his skill as a writer, stretched and magnified by the horror of the war, were almost diminished by this showy new business.

(Soundbite of "Good Night, and Good Luck")

Mr. DAVID STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse, a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous ideas. But the elaborate structure...

CHADWICK: That is Murrow as portrayed by the actor David Strathairn in the new film out today, "Good Night, and Good Luck," the title from Murrow's sign-off phrase. This scene frames the movie, Murrow ruminating in a speech to his peers about what has happened to broadcasting and news. The film is directed and co-written by George Clooney and this man, actor and writer Grant Heslov.

Mr. GRANT HESLOV (Actor; Writer): This was a speech that George, you know, basically knew by heart. You know, his father was a newsman who did the local news in Cincinnati and as a journalist and writes a column. So this is a--really a speech that he grew up with.

CHADWICK: The speech is the subtext to the film. It occurs years after the main action in the movie, which takes place in 1954. Murrow watches the Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, and his reckless attacks on supposed Communists in government become a national crisis.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: George Clooney and Grant Heslov tell this story in black and white, and in that restrained palette they find rich, evocative tones to lure you back to long ago.

Mr. HESLOV: The idea with the beginning, really, is we wanted people to feel like they were back in the '50s, give them a chance to get used to the black and white, give them a chance to sort of hear a piece of music and really be transported.

CHADWICK: Everybody is wearing a suit and looks good in it. Everybody's smoking. Everybody's drinking. It looks like the '50s.

Mr. HESLOV: Yeah. I wasn't alive in the '50s and George wasn't, either. But we did our research. And, you know, everybody smoked.

CHADWICK: George Clooney, among the most popular actors in the world, thought about playing Murrow himself, but decided on a co-star role instead. He cast David Strathairn as Murrow. It works: the line of the jaw, Murrow's dark, brilliantine hair combed back, his lean frame that carried tailored suits with such elan.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: He was very conscious of camera. That elegance that he had, which I think was there from the word go as a young man, he was very conscious of. But inside that demeanor was a man who judged himself very critically. He never felt that he had got it right. He sweated profusely before each broadcast. And there was a tension in there which belied something much more fragile, I think, and vulnerable than the exterior demeanor that he had.

CHADWICK: As you play him in the film, there's scarcely ever a smile on his face. I mean, this is a serious time and it's a picture about a serious moment in his life. He's challenged. But there are other people laughing and smiling in the film and having a good time, enjoying themselves even though they're working hard. But not Murrow.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: I feel that he understood that everything ran downhill through him. He knew that in this particular event he was the one who was going to speak for all of these people, and he was very late in the game coming into it. Everybody was wondering, `When are you going to go after him, Ed? When are you going to go after him?' 'cause other people had already. And when they talk about him carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and walking around the CBS News studios with--like a crown of thorns, and I don't think that was in any sort of religious intention. I think it was just that he was seemingly tortured by the responsibility upon him.

(Soundbite of "Good Night, and Good Luck")

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: `The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'

CHADWICK: The moment comes when Murrow has to decide to really go after McCarthy, knowing it is dangerous for him and maybe more so for his hesitant friend and boss William Paley, the founder of CBS. Murrow confronts McCarthy on television and in the frenetic newsroom, but the scene where Murrow challenges Paley, played by Frank Langella, takes place in the discreet executive suites of the network they have made together, the two of them, and the Clooney character looking on.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: That was a crucial moment and a kind of quietly crucial moment in the picture, because it represents the collision of news and entertainment. And I think we all sort of understood what that moment was about. George said after we'd gone through it a few times, `Don't take your eyes off him. This is a life and death moment for more things than we know about. Just don't take your eyes off him.' And that set the ball in motion for this scene.

(Soundbite of "Good Night, and Good Luck")

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) What do you want, Bill?

Mr. FRANK LANGELLA: (As William Paley) I don't want to get a constant stomachache every time you take on a controversial subject.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) I'm afraid that's the price you have to be willing to pay.

Mr. LANGELLA: (As William Paley) Let's walk very carefully through these next few moments.

CHADWICK: The emotion that is in this film is all about Murrow's reluctance and doubt and sense of failure. That's you.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: Yeah, I'm not sure if it's me, but it's--it is Murrow. At once inside him, I think, was abiding hope, and at the same time a crippling realization that it was going to become something else than what he had hoped for.

CHADWICK: Television, you mean?

Mr. STRATHAIRN: Television. I was looking for a handle always in Murrow, in the research, in the pictures and everything, trying to find what was it that he brought back with him from Europe that people attribute his darkness to. I think it was his time on the streets of London, going down into the bomb shelters--where he got the phrase `Good night, good luck' from all the English people saying that to each other--and doing a report on Birkenau after he'd gone and seen the...

CHADWICK: Concentration...

Mr. STRATHAIRN: ...concentration camps. I think something cracked inside him. I think he realized man's--the depth that man will go to be inhumane to himself. And he came back to the States carrying something inside that ultimately gave him the confidence or the energy or the will to go at Joseph R. McCarthy, because he wasn't going to let something like that happen again.

CHADWICK: David Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow. He won the best actor award for the role at the Venice Film Festival this year in the new movie "Good Night, and Good Luck." We also spoke with the co-writer and producer of the film, Grant Heslov.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I've got my eyes on you, so best beware...

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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