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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 15:37 EDT

George Clooney takes on Joe McCarthy in new movie

October 3, 2005

By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – History has not been kind to Sen.
Joseph McCarthy. Since his death from alcoholism in 1964, he
has grown into a symbol of government run amok — the
witch-hunter feeding on rumor and innuendo, a hero for some but
a reckless villain for many others.

A new film, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which opens on
Friday, about McCarthy’s 1954 television showdown with CBS
newsman Edward R. Murrow, pointedly does nothing to improve the
Wisconsin senator’s reputation, but it just might make him a
star and maybe, even, a person to be reckoned with at Oscar
time.

The film’s director, actor George Clooney, half-jokingly
suggests that he may organize a campaign to get McCarthy
nominated for best supporting actor since all the scenes of him
in the movie come from actual videotapes made when he held sway
in Congress in the early 1950s, hunting communists and
“traitors” and fueling Cold War paranoia.

The film, an examination of the limits of democracy and
even plain human decency in a time of political stress, is
certain to win kudos and award nominations for its star, David
Strathairn, who plays newsman Edward R. Murrow in a feat closer
to channeling a ghost than acting.

The 90-minute, black and white film tells of Murrow’s
decision to expose McCarthy’s misuse of power in a now classic
1954 “See it Now” program in which he used the senator’s own
words to paint a portrait of a bullying demagogue at work.

Many credit that program as the start of McCarthy’s fall
from grace.

“We decided to use McCarthy, the way Murrow did. If we used
an actor, people would say he was too oafish or too large. It
was better to let him do it in his own words and it was much
cheaper,” Clooney said in a recent interview with Reuters.

Now he said, only partly in jest, he was considering taking
an ad in the Hollywood trade papers that shows a picture of
McCarthy and that catch-phrase used in all Oscar campaigns:
“For your consideration.”

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“All we need is a quote from Time magazine saying,
‘McCarthy is riveting.’ It would be fantastic. If we can get
away with it, we’ll do it,” Clooney said.

He joked that he tried to launch such a campaign to get
Matt Damon named “Sexiest Man Alive,” but the ad was rejected
by the Hollywood Reporter on the grounds that it was clearly a
spoof.

Jokes or half-jokes aside, the film has a darker subtext
for it argues that Murrow and television paid a huge price for
taking on McCarthy, a price it is paying even today.

For Clooney, the story of television news is of a battle
between a network’s desire to make money by entertaining
viewers and effort to meet its less-profitable obligation to
inform the public of important news.

“My father was a television anchorman and Murrow was one of
his heroes. And I have always had a fascination with that
moment in history because it was one of two times that
broadcast journalism had an immediate effect. The other time
was when Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam,” Clooney said,
referring to the effect Cronkite’s reporting had on eroding
support at home for the war.

Clooney said he started pulling out the old speeches of the
McCarthy era and felt they resonated today when many feel civil
liberties have been curtailed by the Bush administration’s
declared war on terror and the USA Patriot Act which
strengthens law enforcement’s powers.

“I thought it was interesting to hear (politicians) using
fear to erode civil liberties …. Power unchallenged and
unquestioned will always corrupt. You will find that happens in
times of fear and that some in the press take passes at
exposing it,” he added.

Murrow was one the nation’s most revered newsman when he
took on McCarthy. He had become a trusted figure for his
reporting from Britain during World War Two, but even he was
not safe from McCarthy, who accused him of being a communist
sympathizer.

And less than a year after its program on McCarthy, “See It
Now’s” sponsor dropped the show and it lost its regular weekly
berth. It lasted until 1957 as a series of specials.

But no one had troubles with Murrow’s other CBS program, a
celebrity interview show called “Person to Person” in which he
famously asked the then secretly gay pianist Liberace when he
would marry and was told when the right girl came around.

As far as David Strathairn is concerned, the idea of
getting McCarthy nominated for his performance is not so
far-fetched. “He has the biggest part in the movie. we wouldn’t
be here without him.”