Combustible Celluloid

Interview with David Strathairn

Pure 'Luck'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Since his debut in John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), the always great, always dependable David Strathairn has logged more than 80 movie and TV appearances with nary a leading role -- until now.

Occupying center stage for George Clooney's incredible new film Good Night, and Good Luck, Strathairn has effortlessly primed himself for his first ever Oscar nomination. He plays television journalist Edward R. Murrow, circa 1953, going head to head with Senator Joseph McCarthy. (The title comes from Murrow's signature sign-off line.)

Strathairn, who was born in San Francisco and attended Clown College, has so far specialized in low-key characterizations like Murrow. "Nothing was arbitrary about the guy," he says during a recent visit to his hometown. "The photos, the archival footage, the biographies, all said that he was stoic, elegant and composed. But inside something else altogether was happening, and that's what the camera caught. That could only be achieved by the eyes."

Besides its brilliant casting, Clooney achieved this unusual and special film through several methods. First, rather than an actor, it uses footage of the real McCarthy. "George wanted to make it as if a journalist made it, so every event in the film is fact-based and double- sourced." The new footage was shot in gorgeous black-and-white to match the older news footage.

The film also adopts a musical tone, aware of crescendos and silences, and uses jazz singer Dianne Reeves for several musical interludes. "I think he inherited that musical awareness from his aunt [Rosemary Clooney]. The songs in there are her arrangements, and the band are the guys that played with her."

Best of all, the film uses many of Murrow's original transcripts, with their beautifully constructed language. "George says that Murrow wrote about a third of the script," Strathairn says. "He was a poet; listen to the cadences. You'd get these long sentences with lots of ideas and images in them, and then he'd punctuate them with quick little phrases to get the point across. Then he'd give you Shakespearian quotes."

The actor says he didn't know many details about Murrow before he began the project, but now has a special appreciation for the journalist's achievements, and especially his personality, which somehow won over the many Americans who watched him on television each week. "It was his sense of objectivity and his directness," Strathairn says. "He was speaking right to you and expecting you to listen."

September 27, 2005

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