Truman Capote wasn’t the first practitioner of “The New Journalism,” as Tom Wolfe called it. Other New York magazine writers, like Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and Wolfe himself had already brought the organizing techniques of fiction to bear on real-life subjects by the early 1960s. But Capote’s sensational and exhaustively reported “non-fiction novel,” “In Cold Blood,” which appeared in four long installments in The New Yorker in 1965, and was then brought out as a book in January of 1966, became the first best-seller of the form. It made Capote rich and famous. It also marked the beginning of his ruin as a writer, and as a man.
The story of Capote and “In Cold Blood” is as fascinating as, and more instructive than, that of the two killers whose lives and deaths he chronicled in the book. And director Bennett Miller’s sublime new movie, “Capote,” manages to do somber justice to both tales, while at the same time making a dark moral point about the calculating relationship between writers and the people they earn their living writing about.
The picture is filled with unusually fine performances, but the one at its center — by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the title role — is the most serenely astonishing performance of the year. Hoffman stands a good seven inches taller than Capote did, and unlike the fey and fluttery writer, he’s a burly guy. (He’s previously incorporated his heft into such roles as the obnoxious wastrel Freddie in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and the rumpled rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous.”) But anyone who might remember Capote from the many television talk-show appearances he made before his death in 1984, or from his comical turn as an actor in the 1976 movie “Murder by Death,” will realize that Hoffman, in a bravura feat of character inhabitation, has managed to completely retrieve this character from the encroaching mists of media history.
Capote was already a celebrated writer of stories, novels, plays and movies, a hobnobber with stars like Humphrey Bogart and Elizabeth Taylor, and a fixture at glittery Manhattan literary parties when he opened the New York Times one morning in November of 1959, and came upon a small article about a murder case in the remote prairie town of Holcomb, Kansas. A well-to-do farmer named Herbert Clutter and his wife and two children had been savagely killed — shot-gunned and stabbed — and police had no idea who did it, or, more bafflingly, why. Capote, who’d been casting about for a subject on which to focus some new narrative ideas, immediately secured an assignment from The New Yorker to cover the case, and, bringing along as an assistant his childhood friend Harper Lee (soon to win a Pulitzer Prize for her own novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”), he flew to Kansas that night.
As portrayed by Hoffman, with sleekly barbered hair, hummingbird-high voice and chin tipped up as if sniffing the winds of career opportunity, Capote is a frankly gay man fond of ankle-length camel’s hair overcoats and big, flingy scarves from Bergdorf’s. He cuts a supremely odd figure amid the vast, wintry flatlands of Kansas, as out of place as a dowager in a diner. But he’s entirely at home with who he is, and he has a winsome, irresistible charm. The small-town locals he begins chatting up quickly succumb to it.
Before long, the two ex-con drifters who committed the murders are caught and brought back to Kansas by chief investigator Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), who hopes to see them quickly dispatched. Watching them being hustled up the courthouse steps, Capote is transfixed. The bigger of the two, Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), is a run-of-the-mill lug; but the other, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., in a breakout performance), has moist, soulful eyes and a beaten-down demeanor that strikes a chord with Capote, whose own childhood was often loveless and chaotic.
“It’s like Perry and I grew up in the same house,” he says later. “And then one day he went out the back door, and I went out the front.”
With the common-touch help of Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, in one of her sharpest characterizations), Capote has been tirelessly interviewing virtually everyone with any connection to the case — farmers, high-school students, lawmen and their wives. But as the killers go through the process of being tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Capote, who has managed to obtain unlimited jailhouse access to them, zeroes in on Smith. He discovers that the hangdog con has a modest gift for drawing, and a touching penchant for fancy words. (Warning Capote not to believe everything Hickock tells him, Perry says, “He’s naturally mendacious.”)
Capote is smitten by Perry, but his attraction is inherently ambivalent. He cares about him, but he’s using him, too. (“He’s a goldmine!” the writer crows in a moment of professional transport.) When Perry goes on a hunger strike in jail, Capote brings in jars of baby food and spoon-feeds it to him. And when the two men are found guilty of the murders, he hires an expensive attorney to draw up their appeal. But as years pass (the prisoners’ appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court), Capote grows increasingly irritated. He knows he has a great story (“When I think how good my book could be, I can’t breathe,” he says), but in order for it to work, Hickock and Smith must die. “It’s torture what they’re doing to me,” he whines over a martini in Manhattan as the appeals drag on. “All I want to do is write the ending, and there’s no ending in sight.”
Everything about the movie has been exquisitely well-considered. First-time screenwriter Dan Futterman’s carefully controlled colloquial dialogue provides a steady illumination of character; and director Miller — whose previous film credits consist of one documentary — sets off the words with unhurried interludes of eloquent silence. Working with cinematographer Adam Kimmel, he brings the characters in so close you can almost feel their breath, and see the conflicted thoughts flickering behind their eyes. It’s a picture of great intelligence and grace, not least in its low-key treatment of Capote’s homosexuality. His relationship with his longtime companion, a less-successful novelist named Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), is presented as one of simple, stabilizing affection. Even more remarkably, the solid, undemonstrative people of Kansas are portrayed, not as knee-jerk homophobic rubes, but as smart and good-hearted — they accept Capote for who he is, and that’s that.
Rising above this richly prepared ground is the towering performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Out of a slowly gathering accumulation of emotional and behavioral detail, he creates a quietly appalling portrait of a writer who’s wracked by a spiritual crisis he never expected — torn between the beckoning of fame and the shame of his manipulation of a doomed man, one he’s pretended to befriend. The movie suggests that Capote never recovered from this experience — he went on to become a high-society party mascot and ended up a reclusive alcoholic, never writing the great, career-capping novel his talent seemed to promise. It’s a cautionary tale, and in “Capote,” it’s laid out unforgettably.
“Good Night, And Good Luck”: Once Were Warriors
Here’s a kind of thing you won’t be hearing on the evening news tonight. It’s Edward R. Murrow on CBS Radio, live from the just-liberated Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, Germany, April 15, 1945. Murrow is the first journalist on the scene, and he’s been trying to convey to his listeners back in the States the horror, the ghastly depravity, that he sees all around him. It’s not been easy. This is his wrap-up:
“I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry.”
Murrow, whose early childhood was spent on a North Carolina farm with his Quaker parents, living in a log cabin that had neither plumbing nor electricity, grew up to become, effectively, the creator of broadcast news. Although he died in 1965, he remains a blazing beacon of integrity and inspiration for most serious journalists. “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a cinematic labor of love and anger on the part of director and co-star George Clooney, demonstrates why by focusing on one of Murrow’s most famous exploits: the time in March of 1954 when he took on the political demagogue and cultural terrorist Senator Joseph McCarthy when no one else would, and won.
The picture’s not strong on background. McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin, was lifted to national prominence by the spasm of anti-communist frenzy that gripped the nation in the late 1940s. The American government was alarmed by a communist takeover of mainland China, and by the success of Soviet spies in procuring secret U.S. technology which allowed Russia to construct its own atomic bomb. McCarthy played this not entirely unjustified national paranoia for all it was worth, rising up to charge the government with not doing enough to fight the communist threat. During a speech in West Virginia in February of 1950, he held up what he said was a list of dozens of Communist Party members who he claimed were working in the U.S. State Department. He repeated these charges over ensuing weeks — although each time, the numbers of alleged subversives kept changing.
As the head of a Senate investigating committee — in which position he could make all the charges and intimidate all the people and destroy all the careers he wanted without fear of legal consequences — McCarthy, and the “witch hunt” hysteria that came to be called “McCarthyism,” grew into a national blight. For a while.
In “Good Night, and Good Luck,” we see Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), now the host of a weekly half-hour television news show called “See It Now,” watching McCarthy’s rise on CBS studio monitors with stone-faced contempt. He is infuriated by the story of an Air Force Reserve officer who’s been discharged from the service simply because his father is in the habit of reading a Serbian newspaper; and by the case of a woman in the government’s General Accounting Office who lost her job because an unidentified source claimed to have seen her name on a list of Communist Party members. Murrow is also disquieted by the fact that his own employer, CBS TV, has succumbed to the spreading anti-communist fever and is requiring its employees to sign “loyalty oaths” declaring their love of country — or face dismissal. (The movie lets us know that Murrow has signed one of these noxious documents himself, but it evinces no interest in finding out why, or how he felt about doing it.) CBS staffers are spooked and fearful. Murrow, who’s been contemplating doing an exposé on McCarthy’s reign of civic terror, looks around his broadcast lair one day and says to his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), “We’re gonna go with this story. Because the terror is right here in this room.”
Murrow’s battle with McCarthy — carried out before the cameras of the rising new medium of television — is a gripping tale, and “Good Night,” which was shot in period black-and-white — tells it pretty grippingly. (All of Murrow’s on-air dialogue is taken from original scripts.) Clooney, famously derisive of the current infotainment regime in much TV news, prefigures this current state of affairs in the character of CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella), who admires Murrow, and grudgingly goes along with him, but is deeply averse to offending sponsors, and to “making the news, not reporting it.” Clooney has a point, but Paley isn’t entirely lacking one. It’s fine to give a charismatic pro like Murrow his head in choosing his targets, but you wouldn’t want to give that leeway to just any old hack.
“Good Night, and Good Luck” is an admirable film; it tells an important story, and it’s stoked with obvious conviction. (You can tell by the way Clooney completely retracts his familiar, twinkling star power that it’s the story he cares about above anything else.) But there are some problems. The movie is largely locked into an airless studio environment, and after a while it begins to feel a little claustrophobic. And Strathairn’s portrayal of Murrow as an unwaveringly grim paragon of moral rectitude creates something of a black hole into which all of our possible tolerance for such a one-note character is eventually sucked.
But Murrow’s deep reservations about the power of television, and the medium’s capacity to becloud as well as clarify, now seem prophetic. In a corporate dinner address, he warns about the temptation TV poses to draw audiences in with promises of “decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of our world.” Unless some part of television programming can be committed to engaging with that world, and granted at least a partial exemption from the incessant demand to turn a profit, he says, then TV will amount to little more than “just wires and lights.” That’s well said. Was anybody listening?
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