Clooney vs. the Far Right

What’s gay about George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck? In a gay-press exclusive, the superstar director fills us in—and tells us why he’s hopeful for America’s future on gay rights and civil liberties

BY Anne Stockwell

November 21 2005 1:00 AM ET

At another point
in our national history, George Clooney wouldn’t be a
hero. We’d know him simply as a gifted filmmaker with
a nose for ideas and a knack for exploring them
on-screen—an A-list actor who’s fast
moving beyond his bread-and-butter career to take up a
lasting role behind the camera.

But in his
soft-shoe way, Clooney has for some years now been on a
hero’s journey, and gays and lesbians have
always been invited along. He’s a showbiz Robin
Hood—bewitching fans of all sexes in blockbusters
like Ocean’s Twelve, then using his
clout to make personal films for himself and
opportunities for others. Through Section Eight, the
production banner he shares with Steven Soderbergh, Clooney
has lent his support to gay directors like Todd Haynes
(Far From Heaven) and John Maybury (The
Jacket
). Actually, Clooney’s second directorial
feature, Good Night, and Good Luck, offers a yeasty
gay subtext. But he doesn’t milk it. As with so
much of his work, it’s only there if you look.

Everything
that’s most appealing about Clooney comes together in
this pared-down, black-and-white trip back in time to
the 1953 battle between legendary TV newsman Edward R.
Murrow (David Strathairn) and Communist-obsessed
inquisitor Sen. Joe McCarthy. Clooney, who cowrote the
script and who also costars, doesn’t dumb down the
history. Exposition comes and goes under bursts of
overlapping dialogue. The action races.

McCarthy, one of
the great American scenery chewers, is not portrayed by
an actor but seen via actual TV footage. And in scenes from
1954’s famous Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy
is flanked by another infamous name: attorney Roy
Cohn, the senator’s closeted but antigay right-hand
man.

Murrow’s
on-air challenge of McCarthy started to wake the American
people up. But it was the fallout from Cohn’s
machinations on behalf of an alleged boyfriend that
went on to discredit and destroy McCarthy. Good
Night, and Good Luck
takes us back to the moment
when it all came down.

It’s well
known that Clooney is the son of a newsman. He likes to talk
about the respect for journalism he was raised with, the
obligation to “speak truth to power.”
And although Clooney refers to himself as a “big
old liberal,” he didn’t make this stuff up.
His reporting is as deadpan as his own way with a
quip.

Clooney is a lot
of fun to talk to. He’s canny and all, but he
doesn’t feel handled. He’s not afraid to
speak up. That shouldn’t be rare, but it is. It
shouldn’t be unusual to hear a male star say
“I think you”—meaning
gays—“should feel hopeful” about the
prognosis for gay rights in America. But it is. Maybe
Clooney shouldn’t be a hero. But he is. In times like
these, what can you do?

What a movie.
We’re really proud of it.

The film goes back in time to the moment when Edward R.
Murrow took on Sen. Joe McCarthy. In doing this
movie now, who are you taking on?

I say this in every interview, so I’m not
just picking an obviously biased place to say this,
but I’ve been a big old liberal my whole life,
and I’m hard-pressed to find when [liberals] have
been on the wrong side of social issues—to lose
the moral argument. Without the liberal view
we’d still be burning witches at the stake, and women
wouldn’t be voting, and blacks would be sitting
at the back of the bus, and we’d be in Vietnam,
and McCarthy’d be in power. It’s not to knock
a conservative point of view, but I don’t
understand how we lose a moral argument. And so I
found that it was a good time, rather than for me to try and
preach—I’ve seen many of my friends who are
actors do that, and I find that to be ineffective at
the very least. I find myself turning the TV off at
times, because I go, “Ugh, don’t do it,
don’t jump!”

Right.
I found if you can keep something in a historical
reference, then you’re at least able to raise a
debate. And the debate should be as simple as this:
This isn’t a Right-or-Left, red- or blue-state issue;
these are constitutional issues. It was the Republicans that
took McCarthy down, not the Democrats. And ultimately
the questions are, too, about the responsibility of
the fourth estate. Are you going to step up and ask
difficult questions of power? My father’s an
anchorman for 30 years. He went after Jimmy Carter
when the OPEC nations raised the price of oil, and he
went after Gerald Ford when he pardoned Nixon. The
responsibility of the fourth estate is to constantly
question authority. Because we know over the history
of time, without that challenge, then power corrupts.

So, then, what’s been happening lately, George?
Well, that’s the second part of this. [The film]
is also about bringing up the debate and discussing
the use of fear to erode civil liberties. We do this,
as you well know, every 30 years. Bomb us at Pearl
Harbor and we round up all the Japanese-Americans and stick
them in detention camps. We come to our senses and go,
What the hell were we
thinking?
—usually led by the press. I see
actually some teeth in the press, which is nice to see
again. But in general, I find that it’s a good
time to address the idea that us imprisoning people without
the right to face their accuser, without a speedy
trial or Geneva convention rights—that’s
a union we’re protecting that I don’t
recognize.

Yes.
And I worry about that, Right or Left. That’s a
very dangerous place to go. [In the film] we tried to
deal with it in a fair way, saying it’s not
black-and-white; of course it’s complicated. Is
[alleged al-Qaeda bomb conspirator José] Padilla
a terrorist? Maybe. But either he is a criminal and he
gets a writ of habeas corpus, or he’s a prisoner of
war and he gets Geneva convention rights. Do you set
the guy free? I don’t know. Is that dangerous
to the state? Yeah, probably. So maybe you can’t.
But as Murrow says, there must be a place to protect the
state and the right of the individual at the same
time.

Absolutely.
And that to me is not me preaching; it’s me
asking that we keep talking about it.

Tags: Commentary

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