You can tell by looking at him that George Clooney--well-scrubbed and suave in the old Hollywood style, "dark and handsome" by Gramma's definition, quicker-witted than you'd ever expect--is a man who lives to disarm.
You can also tell this by talking to him. Friday afternoon late, about two months ago, I'm sitting at my desk, working on deadline, minding my own biz, when the phone rings and the voice on the other end says in about two seconds flat, sans punctuation or pause, "Hey man it's George Clooney how ya doin' whassup what's goin' on?" My one-syllable greeting begins promptly but takes twice as long as his to finish: Haaaaaayyyy, I drawl. Meantime I'm thinking, Great--no tape recorder turning, no questions prepared, no one to pick the kid up at daycare. No way to postpone this. And no one around to see me cup my hand over the receiver and mouth the words, It's fucking George Clooney on the phone!
Am I disarmed? No--more like dismantled. You probably didn't know that movie critics are people--that we get starstruck on occasion. I think if Clooney had pulled this gotcha! trick two years ago on all the reviewers of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his critically (and criminally) neglected directorial debut, he'd have...a bunch of a good reviews. Not like he needs 'em. Most likely the hyper-charming telephone-ambush shtick is meant to amuse him, not me. (The sexiest thing about Clooney has always been that he seems to be fully enjoying his absurdly good fortune.)
But the critic is amused anyway--even enough to forget, temporarily, the business at hand. "Okay, wait a sec," I eventually implore after several minutes of small talk about Clooney's caffeinated race to finish the final edit of his second feature--Good Night, and Good Luck., about legendary TV journalist Edward R. Murrow and his '50s war with communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy--before he jets off to screen it at Venice. "Are we doing an interview now?" I ask. "I mean, are we talking about talking [later] or are we talking?"
"We're talking," he says.
Okay. In a minute and a half, I'm recording over the only tape I could find in a minute and a half, and Clooney is still talking. Now he's talking, appropriately, about journalism.
"For every scene we wrote," he says of Good Night, "I tried to find at least two living sources who'd say that the basic construction [of the scene] was honest and true. We certainly telescoped some stuff. Basically, we're looking at five episodes of television and how incredibly difficult they were for Murrow and the people around him."
Difficult, no doubt. Did Clooney want the movie to be not only a then-is-now critique of de facto censorship in conservative times, but also a psychological study of a journalist's pressure within such a climate?
"There were a lot of people around [in the '50s] who felt that McCarthy was a schmuck," he says, engaging the question without really answering it. "But Murrow's show about Milo Radulovich--the kid who got kicked out of the Air Force because his sister and father might have gone to some [communist party] meetings--was probably the first step that TV had taken to editorialize. Now, there's good and bad that comes from that. The good is that you have Murrow creating something beautifully and responsibly. And the bad part, of course, is that it opens the door for a lot of the things we've seen [on TV news lately] that are not so beautiful and not so responsible."
Indeed, Good Night reveals Murrow's ultimate victory in the court of public opinion as the beginning of the end of TV's ability to speak truth to power. As the network, the government, and the sponsors close in on the chain-smoking broadcaster, forcing him to run puff pieces in place of investigative journalism (the more things change...), Clooney's inclusion of vintage cigarette ads doesn't lighten the tension so much as show that the smokes killed Murrow in more ways than one. With each of the inimitable sign-offs that give the movie its title, we have the increasing sense that the host will need his own good luck as much as anyone. And yet this movie by and about a TV star who used celebrity to agitate appears designed to assert that you can't always underestimate those good-looking gents on the small screen: Some of them are intelligent and principled; some of them might disarm you.
"The truth is that if you go straight [to the studio] and you say, 'Okay, here's the story we're going to do,' then it is possible [to bite the hand that feeds]. I mean, Syriana [Clooney's forthcoming star vehicle based on the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism] is a really tough film to get made at this particular point in time. We said [to Warner Bros.], 'Look, guys: We're gonna put a face on the quote-unquote evildoers, and you're gonna have to take the heat for it.' 'Cause we're gonna take the heat for it. It's not that we're unpatriotic; we just believe that if you're going to fight a war on terror, which is not a war against a state, but a war against an ideal, then you're going to have to understand the reasons why these people hate us--and that requires actually looking at it, not just labeling [enemies of America]. It's a very ballsy thing when a studio commits to a film like that. And they've stuck their necks way out there with us on a couple of these."
But that's a credit to you, too, right?
"I don't know that that's true," says Clooney, the gorgeous lefty who's also smart, funny, rich, powerful, and, apparently, modest. "I'd say it's more a credit to them, because I'm not the one putting up the money to do it. I'm just the one, you know, asking them to do it."
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