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TAKING LIBERTIES SERIOUSLY DIRECTOR GEORGE CLOONEY PUTS A PREMIUM ON ACCURACY FOR HIS DRAMATIZATION OF THE MURROW-MCCARTHY CLASHES.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

``Good Night, and Good Luck'' could only be more George Clooney if he'd starred in it.

As it is, Clooney directed and co-wrote the period piece with producer Grant Heslov, and it was made by the actor's company, Section Eight.

The hero of the film - which opens Friday - is legendary broadcast newsman Edward R. Murrow, who was also a hero in Clooney's childhood home (the actor's father, Nick, has been a broadcast journalist for most of his working life, and George himself briefly pursued a career in the field).

It's not a biopic, though. Rather, the black-and-white production zeros in on a handful of Murrow's CBS ``See It Now'' shows in 1953 and '54. That's when the respected reporter took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's hearings that targeted people for Communist ties both real and insinuated. Murrow's shows led directly to McCarthy's censure and the end of the fear-driven ``witch hunt'' era, a victory for civil liberties dear to dedicated liberal Clooney's heart.

Why, though, isn't the star of such hits as ``Ocean's Eleven'' and ``The Perfect Storm'' playing Murrow in the movie?

``When I was first writing it, I thought I'm about the right age and I might be the right guy to play it,'' the 44-year-old Clooney says. ``But after looking at more and more footage of him, you realized that Murrow always looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. And, quite honestly, that's not what people think of when they think of me.''

Indeed. Despite his increasingly high political profile and growing reputation as a serious filmmaker (this is his second feature-directing gig, after the critically acclaimed ``Confessions of a Dangerous Mind''), Clooney is generally thought of as a joke-cracking Hollywood playboy who lives high at his lakeside Italian villa and keeps a pet pig.

The Murrow role went to David Strathairn, the concerned face of many a high-minded John Sayles flick. Clooney took the secondary role of Murrow's supportive producer, Fred Friendly.

``You kind of get pigeonholed for various reasons,'' says Strathairn, who dryly tries to convince reporters that he's got a sense of humor, too. ``One thing I didn't do in this movie (that) I regret not doing was taking a pratfall. I think, as great as Edward R. Murrow was, in terms of cinema, you've gotta honor those great clowns.''

Ha ha. But as much as for his gravitas, Strathairn was hired to play Murrow for his astounding ability to deliver the broadcaster's five-minute monologues in a single, note-perfect take. Clooney and Heslov, in fact, said they shot second takes out of a sense of obligation, not necessity.

The actor says it may have looked like a piece of cake. But ...

``I think they were being kind saying that,'' insists Strathairn, who recently won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival. ``Murrow read his stuff, so I had that ace-in-the- hole. If I froze in front of the camera, I could always just look down. But George said, 'We want you looking at the camera a little bit more than reading, OK?' It was hard. And it was scary. But there wasn't a moment that I felt wasn't being honest.''

Another reason why Clooney took the less-demanding role was that he had just damaged his spine making the petro-biz thriller ``Syriana,'' which comes out in November. He was in excruciating pain throughout the fast, low-budget production of ``Good Night.''

``It's not that your back hurts,'' Clooney explains. ``You get these horrible, ice cream brain-freeze headaches. So I would go in on the weekends and get these things called blood patches, where they'd shoot blood into your spine. It was like running a marathon to get it done.''

``I basically had to direct the film, I had to do it all,'' cracks Heslov, who has a small role in the film as Don Hewitt, who went on to produce CBS' legendary ``60 Minutes'' newsmagazine. ``The thing is, George is a trouper, so it didn't really come into play. At least, I don't think anybody else would have noticed it.''

As much as these guys like to joke around, they were dead serious about every aspect of ``Good Night.'' Concerned that right-wing media would savage the film over the least inaccuracy, they tried to re-create events as scrupulously as possible.

`I felt that I had to be very, very careful with the facts, because someone would marginalize it otherwise,'' Clooney explains. ``That seems to be the thing to do now; you find one thing that isn't accurate and just go, 'The whole thing's hogwash.' So I treated it like my journalist father would. I just double-sourced everything, between various books and having people on the set who were actually there at the time. Each of these scenes had at least two people who said this is, basically, what happened.''

The decision to make it black-and-white grew out of that. Like Murrow, Clooney wanted McCarthy to essentially hang himself, so the only time you see the Wisconsin senator in the film is in archive footage, rather than re-enactments. ``We're gonna take ads out in the trades for him, for best supporting actor consideration,'' Clooney cracks. ``I was concerned that, if we had an actor who did a perfect impersonation of him, people would say we're making him too arch. And there's something very powerful about seeing him actually saying that Murrow is the cleverest of the jackal pack and a Communist.''

Of course, those who have been trying to rehabilitate McCarthy's image in recent years wouldn't see anything disagreeable about that. Ann Coulter may argue that McCarthy was right about some of the Communists he claimed were in our government at the height of the Cold War. Clooney lobbies for context and clarification.

``Was he right about two or three of the people that he named? Yeah,'' the director acknowledges. ``Was Alger Hiss probably a spy? Probably. But the point is forgetting that he was wrong about 99 percent of them. And more important than that, he was wrong every time he denied people their civil liberties.''

Still, there's a self-congratulatory tone to ``Good Night'' that can only reinforce conservative perceptions of a liberal bias in the mainstream media. This may be unfortunate, but it's probably also accurate.

``One of the things that was interesting was that this was the first time that they basically said, We're gonna take a stand,'' Heslov says of Murrow and his team. ``We're gonna take a side because on this particular issue, there is only one side, or so they felt. Now, I happen to agree with their position. But it has opened up a whole other can of worms that we're dealing with the ramifications of today.

``But we didn't ever think about tempering that. We certainly didn't write to try to avoid taking any heat.''

And Clooney expects some fire-breathing reactions.

``I have been square-center counterattacked before,'' he shrugs. ``Bill O'Reilly did a half-hour show about how my career was over because of my political views. I'm a big kid, I can take all of that, I don't mind it. The truth is, the one thing you will have a very difficult time doing is arguing the facts of the film.''

There's a different degree of difficulty when you try to square the socially committed risk-taker with the guy who just announced he's investing huge sums in Las Ramblas, a pricey new Vegas casino complex Clooney hopes will revive the glamorous, dress-code-enforced ambience his singing aunt Rosemary used to work in.

``I invested a pretty big chunk of money in it, and when we finally were about to announce, I was at the G-8, trying to raise money for African debt relief,'' Clooney notes with an ironic snicker. ``I have no apologies for being an entrepreneur and making money, but you have to participate in other ways, and it's a delicate balance there. So 25 percent of anything I make off of this will go to the Make Poverty History campaign.

``I'm an old Irish Catholic, so you have plenty of guilt about all those things,'' he reckons. ``But I was broke a good portion of my life as an actor, then I got lucky. I feel like, if I've been given breaks along the way, then you have to participate in the rest of society.''

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

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(1 -- 4 -- cover; 1 -- color) in BLACK & WHITE

George Clooney takes on 1950s controversy in his film `Good Night, and Good Luck'

(5) George Clooney as Fred Friendly

(6) David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow

(7) Robert Downey Jr. as Joe Wershba
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 2, 2005
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