David Strathairn is one of those all-purpose actors whom you’ve seen many times but might not be able to identify by name. But his relative anonymity will undoubtedly change his leasd performance as legendary TV newsman Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” co-written and directed by George Clooney, who also co-stars as Murrow’s supportive friend and producer, Fred Friendly.
“George called and said he was going to make this movie about his dad’s hero and therefore his hero; he said, ‘I’m going to make a movie about Edward R. Murrow. I’d like you to consider playing him,’” the lanky, soft-spoken actor recalled during a recent Dallas interview. “And that started the snowball rolling. I was hovering above the ground for minutes. Then it was a process of calls, and reading the script, and whether I was available. Of course I would make myself available for it. It was a pretty exciting process. I’m still kind of pinching myself.”
The excitement included some trepidation, though. “[It was] intimidating, it was scary” taking on Murrow, Strathairn admitted. “And then it became very moving.” The picture isn’t a biography of Murrow, but rather an intense and focused account of the journalist’s decision to examine Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s controversial investigatory tactics on a famous 1954 episode of the “See It Now” program; and that affected the way Strathairn tackled the part. On the one hand, the approach meant getting the hothouse atmosphere of the newsroom right. “George knew that in hand,” he said, “because he had grown up in the newsroom with his dad, Nick Clooney. At nine or ten or eleven, he was running a teleprompter in Cincinnati, so he knew what it was like. That was predominantly one of his insights that he brought to the production. Plus, Joe and Shirley [Wershba, who worked with Murrow] were there, and they knew the workings and procedural things, who did what and the layout, the lay of the land, where the reporters did their work, the bullpen.” Another aspect of the tight focus was that Strathairn had to emphasize the professional Murrow. “I read a lot about the events of his life, the chronology, but not who he was in the other parts of his life. And I think it would have been irresponsible to try to guess what was going on and assume something, first of all, that’s not really germane to the story and might not have been correct–out of respect to him, but also out of respect to the particular event that the film was about. That was George and Grant [Heslov, producer and co-writer]’s choice–you don’t want anything extraneous, outside, you don’t want to have any eddies that let the audience linger or go to a place that takes the focus away from the place the story is happening. George said, ‘We’re not making a bio-pic here, and we definitely don’t want an impersonation, because that would be impossible. But try to at least affect a sense of him.’ The way to do that was to get the voice, at least the cadence and the pattern, his phrasing and his articulation, and there are certain phrases–it’s very musical when you listen to it. You could mimic the posture and the way he would stand or sit, and the way he would hold himself in front of the camera. But that was predominantly the cinematographer’s achievement. Then you just try to–you sort of guess, based on fact, what he did and what people said about him. You try to guess how he would react at any given moment, and in this case it was all the McCarthy stuff and certain [newsroom] relationships. But it is a lot of guessing and hoping. It was a huge responsibility.”
One of the special challenges in playing the part was, in a way, holding back and keeping a pose of emotional restraint, especially in Murrow’s scenes with Don Hollenbeck, a CBS news reader and friend of Murrow played by Ray Wise, who was being attacked as a leftist in the media when Murrow was focusing his gaze on McCarthy. “That was a tough scene [with Ray],” Strathairn said, “because they were friends, and Hollenbeck was a protégé of his. And I think Murrow was very aware of what Hollenbeck was going through, and felt for the man. But that’s another thing George was very savvy about, saying that people related differently to each other back then, when you’re in the trenches together, so to speak, as these guys were. You were together but you were alone at the same time. And there was a particular, different kind of dynamic between people. So we’re not going to do any high-fives, no hugging on the set, and we’re not going to have anybody crying in the corner or jumping around. You were demonstrative in a different way in the fifties. I think inside [Murrow] was always churning. If you opened up his head and looked inside, it would be like this cauldron going on–boiling intensely. And yet on the outside he was very poised and seemingly calm. I don’t think he was ever really calm.”
Another aspect of the role that made it particularly challenging was the decision to make the film in the style of the period–which meant in black-and-white–and using original archival footage with which Strathairn’s Murrow would interact. “I’m sure it was George’s [call], from the get-go, to do black-and-white,” Strathairn said. “I don’t think they ever thought about doing it in color, because no one ever saw Murrow or McCarthy in color. To pay respect and homage to television at that time, it was all black-and-white. And they had this footage of McCarthy and Eisenhower that they decided to use, much in the way Murrow used McCarthy so that he could fall on his own sword and expose him for who he was. And George said we’re going to make this movie like a journalist and show it like it was, as much as possible. And they double-sourced everything. Everything that’s in the film happened. There’s some truncation of time, but all the scenes were documented. If it had not been in black-and-white, I think it would have been sort of irresponsible to the memory of the man and the time period.” The process meant that in sequences in which Strathairn’s Murrow was interacting with television monitors in the studio, what Murrow would actually have seen was on them. “When I looked over to the Kent commercial or to Joe Welch at the [Army-McCarthy] hearings, the Gina Lollobrigida [interview that Murrow was simultaneously conducting on ‘Person to Person’] was going on at the same time. It was amazing–you were just there.” At another point Strathairn’s Murrow interviews Liberace via archival footage. “That was so much fun talking to Liberace!” he said. “That’s an amazing interview that goes on for about fifteen minutes–you go from his bedroom out to his pool, to his piano collection, into the garage where his mother is out there–watching wrestling shows!”
In the end, Strathairn emphasized that for him, “Good Night, and Good Luck” is very much a collaborative effort, not a project he carries. “It was daunting enough trying to keep Murrow in focus and keep the issues in focus that each day we were dealing with. It really felt like we were making the news. The film carries itself, I think. It’s carried by so many things, it’s carried in so many ways–the beautiful cinematography, and the score, the music, the editing, the ensemble cast. It just so happens that Murrow is the blabbermouth. He’s the one who had the most important, significant text to deliver. But no, I don’t think of it as that I have to carry this movie. If I’d thought that,” he added with a hint of a smile, “I probably would have said, ‘George, you’d better play this part.’”