Philip Seymour Hoffman slips effortlessly into the skin of Truman Capote.
On the morning of Nov. 15, 1959, hours after coming home from a cocktail party in Manhattan, over which he presided as the literary toast of the urbane, witty, filthy-rich set, Truman Capote scissored an article out of the New York Times.
Many years later, when asked about that moment, and what the impulse had cost him, he would say that if he knew what his action would mean to his career and life and health, he would have smoked a cigarette and gone back to sleep.
That article he snipped out had its obvious, morbid attractions: four bloodied bodies were found. They were the Clutters - a father, mother, teenage daughter, and son - a prosperous farm family, and victims of a seemingly random crime, found slaughtered in their home, on the high wheat plains of Kansas, by persons unknown - shotgunned point blank in the face. A pillow was placed beneath the head of one. Then he was shot.
Not much else was known.
Capote, at first, imagined a piece about the way four violent murders affected the community of Holcomb, Kan. He called William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker, a man so innately curious he would commission 3,500-word articles on orange production.
Capote said he had found a subject to write about. He wanted the magazine to put him on a train to Kansas that night. Six years later, and many trips back and forth between the East Coast and the Midwest, Capote had his story; its length chewed up entire issues of the magazine, and its importance was felt immediately; by the time it became a book, In Cold Blood, Capote had changed the way journalists regarded their work, and turned the wall between fact and art into a door.
Capote, the new movie, overstates the innovation of his work, but not its importance. Journalists had used novelistic devices decades before Capote, especially in the New Yorker. At the time In Cold Blood was published in 1966, the style was called New Journalism; now, it's a standard approach to any big magazine article or book-length reportage, from Into Thin Air to Midnight in Garden of Good and Evil. (And these days, better known as creative non-fiction.)
But that said, what a time for the provocative entertainment of Capote, one of the smartest journalism movies of all - and certainly the most sharp-eyed and thoughtful about the act of working on a story, and the way a story can work on the reporter.
Directed by Bennett Miller, with Philip Seymour Hoffman inhabiting the title role with the grace of classic New Yorker prose (never overplaying his hand, never punching up, constantly aware when enough is enough), this is not your average biopic.
Hoffman may slip effortlessly into the skin of Capote the way Jamie Foxx slipped into Ray Charles, but the imitation and Hollywood biopic conventions end there. The film deals only with those six years of reporting and writing, and the issues they raised, dropping in details of his life as they come up, but always staying focused on this episode; indeed, the picture does not adapt Gerald Clarke's 1989 biography, but rather a single chapter of it.
The timeliest chapter.
Journalism - you might have thought recently in the wake of the New York Times-Judith Miller saga (she's a free-speech icon; no, brutally compromised; no, committed to protecting her sources; and so on) - is both a necessity and a moral gray zone.
And no film has ever explained this with the clarity of Capote - or come closer to illustrating Janet Malcolm's journalism-school standard, The Journalist and the Murderer (ironically, another book that began its life as a New Yorker piece). Her great opening line: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible." She goes on to add journalists gain their sources' trust, then "betray them without remorse." But she ignores the good that writers often do using these tactics, and there lies Capote's conundrum.
To get access to the murderers, drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, Capote required the cooperation of the people he would write about mercilessly.
He squirmed his way inside the Kansas Bureau of Investigation ("the KBI," Hoffman says to himself with a sniff), trading his willingness to listen to the killers' side of the story for an agreement to tell their story. Whether it's the story they wanted - well, that's the crux of the picture's dilemma, the moral ambiguity of journalistic transaction.
Capote takes advantage of loneliness, and their ignorance of the methods (some would say, tricks) of the journalistic trade, to create a work of non-fiction that reads with the poetry and propulsion of fiction. To keep them talking he would even go so far as saying he hadn't written a word yet - meanwhile, back in New York, he was holding public readings.
I always wondered how he did it. I read In Cold Blood in high school, and its intimacy with hardened police officers and criminals alike always felt at odds with Capote the guy I knew, mostly from his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show.
The Capote Hoffman plays - watchful, openly homosexual, with an odd trill in his voice, an expensive scarf around his neck at all times - is the Capote I recall, and the notion of him digging for truth on the frozen plains of Middle America seems roughly similar to Richard Simmons shopping at Cabela's. As Capote shows, it was not easy. He did it by using his literary stardom (Kansas housewives were flattered by this New York star in their modest homes), and with his friend running interference.
That would be Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), more of a straight-shooter. She is supposedly there as a research assistant but she's really there to present a normal front for her friend from another planet. She does what she can. Yet in the time it takes him to complete In Cold Blood, she writes To Kill a Mockingbird, wins a Pulitzer Prize, and attends the premiere of the feature film.
He is not gracious.
Capote pulls no punches with its subject; it is as cold-eyed as he is. So much so, the other actors back away and let Hoffman command center stage in nearly every scene, and he doesn't shy away. Hoffman takes on the look of a man lost in his thoughts, so convinced he is writing a classic, its shape begins to worry him: If his killers are not executed, he has no end. His morals disintegrate. He pushes and prods, and steps back not to be too obvious, then pushes some more. And all it costs him in the end is self-respect. The film ends by reminding us he never finished another book - it's a Faustian bargain.
More likely he never found a suitable subject for a follow-up, but the idea makes you wonder:
No In Cold Blood, no classic in which the Clutters live forever, no work in which a relatively unremarkable crime and anonymous death is granted meaning.
Is that a fair trade to you?