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CBS News legends Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney rave about "Good Night, and Good Luck," but they worry that George Clooney's film could baffle younger viewers.
"Because of the complexity of the story line, and the entire generation that's grown up since those events, some of us felt there should have been a little introduction to what it was all about to set the scene," says Cronkite, 88, former anchor of the "CBS Evening News."
Here's an introduction: Director Clooney depicts how Edward R. Murrow of CBS News challenged Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's intimidating methods in investigating communist influence on the U.S. government in the 1950s. The senator's way of making accusations with little evidence shook the country and spawned the term McCarthyism.
On the program "See It Now" in 1954, Murrow offered a blistering expose of McCarthy and called on the public to oppose the senator. McCarthy's support declined before his death in 1957.
"It's a fairly sophisticated danger that wasn't laid out too clearly in the movie to begin with," says Rooney, 86, of "60 Minutes." "You have to catch on as it goes along."
Yet Rooney adds that he's encouraged that moviegoers want to know the story. "I'm not highly hopeful about the intelligence of the American people," Rooney says. "If they like this, they're not as dumb as I think they are."
So far, the film has generated strong box-office receipts in limited release.
Anyone interested in television news will find a pertinent story in "Good Night, and Good Luck." A black-and-white film, it offers a brisk, 93-minute re-creation of a pivotal moment in broadcast journalism. To understand today's coverage, it helps to know the history. The clash between ratings and public service still shapes television news.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" - one of Murrow's signature comments - has drawn a wide range of reviews for Clooney, who also co-wrote the script and acts in the film. Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post complained that the film "is like a child's view of these events, untroubled by complexity, hungry for myth and simplicity." In The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that Clooney "has found a cogent subject, an urgent set of ideas and a formally inventive, absolutely convincing way to make them live on screen."
Those who knew Murrow, who died of lung cancer in 1965, praise David Strathairn's portrayal of him. The actor was wonderful, says former correspondent Marvin Kalb, 75.
"This guy seems smaller, but he got the cadence so right. He got that look," says Kalb, whom Murrow hired at CBS News.
Of the real Murrow, Kalb says, "It was like Moses and the parting of the Red Sea when he walked through the office. We all stepped aside. He walked slowly, with his head down. He was deep in thought."
Rooney marvels at how Strathairn evoked the newsman. "I can't believe the attention to the back of his head," Rooney says. "He was Murrow from the back."
Clooney, however, bears little resemblance to Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer who died in 1998. Rooney saw the film with Friendly's widow, Ruth, at a New York screening. A filmgoer, not realizing her identity, told Rooney what a stretch it was for Clooney to play the homely Friendly.
"Ruth said, `I know. I slept with him,'" Rooney says.
Rooney and Cronkite disagree about how the film presents Friendly, who was crucial in helping Murrow stand up to McCarthy.
"Fred was a good deal stronger than he came off in the movie," Rooney says. "He had as much to do with the whole thing as Murrow did."
Cronkite says he saw no failure to give Friendly the proper credit. Cronkite says the film was "quite accurate," the casting was good, and filmmaker Clooney did a great job.
"He did a very important public service and should be appreciated for that," Cronkite says. "I hope we can look for more such material."
Clooney, 44, tells ABC's "Good Morning America" that he gravitated to the story because of his father, Nick, a former anchor in Cincinnati.
"I'm the son of a journalist and grew up with it," Clooney says. "These are fights that I fight that were my father's. And so they're enjoyable for me because they're standards that I believe in."
After Murrow, Cronkite set the broadcast standard. But Cronkite, who was Dan Rather's predecessor, dismisses comparisons between his 1968 editorial on the need to negotiate in the Vietnam War and Murrow's stand against McCarthy.
"That Murrow piece was far more courageous," Cronkite says. "That group of extreme right-wingers, as led by McCarthy, was terribly vindictive. The blackmail with which they punished those who spoke up against them was dangerous to one's reputation and continued employment. There wasn't any such movement I had to face in doing my little piece."
But Murrow and Cronkite were giant figures. Greater competition in television news, especially from cable, whittled at the prestige of anchors Rather, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Peter Jennings of ABC. The next generation of anchors, such as NBC's Brian Williams, will command even less attention.
At the very least, "Good Night, and Good Luck" should renew interest in Murrow, whose work can be found in "The Edward R. Murrow Collection." This four-disc DVD set contains the "See It Now" broadcasts on McCarthy and the documentary "Harvest of Shame" about migrant workers.
The heightened attention pleases Richard C. Hottelet, 88, who worked as one of Murrow's radio correspondents in London during World War II.
"He was an earnest guy, with a strong sense of purpose," Hottelet says. "He thought that television should have a purpose, a goal beyond entertainment and making money, that it had to put its finger in sore spots. He did it with `Harvest of Shame' and McCarthy."
Hottelet describes Murrow as the patron saint of broadcast journalism, a pioneer who set a sterling example.
"He was a dramatic fellow," Hottelet says. "That's how he approached things. He didn't do it to hype news."
Hal Boedeker: email@example.com
(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.