By Sean Axmaker
With a 25-year career in some 70 films and TV shows, the prolific David Strathairn is one of the finest contemporary actors who remains largely unknown to most viewers. He's an actor, not a star, most comfortable as an ensemble player in low key dramas and indie productions (including many by longtime friend John Sayles), but equally adept in big budget productions (The River Wild and L.A. Confidential, both by Curtis Hanson), comedies (Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers) and even TV sitcoms (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd).
His performance as the legendary journalist and TV news pioneer Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. could change that. So often cast as nervous, tremulous figures who either overcome their physical trepidation by force of moral will - as in so many Sayles films - or slink away in the absence of such strength, or conversely as slimy, hypocritical powerbrokers and small time crooks, Goodnight gifts him with a role of moral integrity and unflinching courage, and he inhabits it with a performance of quiet strength. Strathairn carves out a figure of decency whose dedication to truth and sense of responsibility to the public - and to his own morality - drives him to put his career on the line for a greater good, and he does so in a performance that matches Murrow's sure, succinct screen persona and Clooney's austere, precise direction.
It was only 10 am when David Strathairn strode in for the interview (in a TV studio appropriately enough, where I was squeezed in just minutes before he went on air), and he was hoarse from his barnstorming press tour. He flew in to Seattle the night before to introduce a screening of Goodnight, And Good Luck. and host an audience Q&A, and he had come directly from a morning radio interview when I met him. "I was in San Francisco yesterday, in Los Angeles the day before. I need an atlas to figure out everywhere I've been in the last week," he joked.
He insisted that he wasn't tired, just his voice, which rumbled and caught like he'd just chain-smoked an entire pack before breakfast. It's something Edward R. Murrow might have done, but not Strathairn. "It sounds like I just stopped yesterday," he smiled after clearing his throat, and we began.
David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.
Let's start with a question I'm sure you've been asked many times before. In your own words, what is the legacy of Edward R. Murrow, and what was the challenge in bringing that to the screen?
His legacy is the highest standards of journalism. Well, that's putting it too simply. Actually I haven't been asked this question, not in so many words. He set the standards of integrity and objectivity and inclusiveness and truth in journalism. That is probably being taught in all the journalism schools right now. But I think this film shows the gauntlet he laid down as to the bravery it requires, the willfulness and the awareness of how difficult it is to keep the ideals and the practices that he was so exemplary in displaying, how to keep those present and always in play in what a journalist does. If anything, it was his courage that he leaves out there for people to tap into. His standards of excellence and his professionalism are unassailable and they always will be, but what he had - evidenced by this film at this particular moment in history, a very dangerous, very risky, very crucial time - was a courage to stand up despite the potential crushing blow of McCarthyism. He could have been like every other one of those journalists, who were as ethical and as professional as he was, but no one had the courage to do it. They were all waiting for him to do it. That might be on of the more important things that he passes down. The inspiration. Be brave, don't be afraid. Don't be afraid.
Good Night, And Good Luck. stays very specifically in the period and focused on the historical events, but it also puts a mirror up to news media of today just by the presentation of the courage of Murrow and his team and his philosophy of the responsibility of the news media. And while the film shows Murrow's clashes with CBS President William S. Paley, it also shows how Paley supported Murrow's ideals, something you simply don't see in the television news media of today. So I think that the film is very political in the way that it, by example, serves as a critique to the news media of today.
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