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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Books & Film

Response onScreen

Capote, Murrow, Cash: Are These the True Stories?

The Chronicles of Narnia’s Aslan isn’t the only super-sized personality being brought to life on the big screen this season. Also in the spotlight: the celebrated Edward R. Murrow, who reported the news; the controversial and groundbreaking American novelist Truman Capote who exploited the news; and the American rock-and-roll legend Johnny Cash who regularly made the news. And while critics are already comparing the resemblance of Disney’s Aslan to the regal cat in C.S. Lewis’s fiction, they’re also holding these three biopics against the details of history.

You’ll find that all three — Good Night, and Good Luck; Capote; and Walk the Line — have unique styles and approaches to memorializing their distinguished central figures. One hits close to the mark. Another fiddles with the facts to increase the drama. And the third gets the facts right, but the focus wrong.

* * *

In Cold Blood was Truman Capote’s last major work, and it exhausted him. After completing this notorious nonfiction novel about the 1959 headline-grabbing murder of a family in Holcomb, Kansas, Capote fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism and depression, which may have been due in part to the toll that the project took on his mind and heart.

Bennett Miller's new film Capote, based on Gerald Clarke's biography and scripted by Dan Futterman, should encourage a resurgence of interest in Capote’s work. It presents the events leading to In Cold Blood’s publication, from the moment the author has the inkling of inspiration, to the burden of ethical compromises he shoulders along the way.

At first glance, the story of an artist with compassion for prisoners would seem like a story of Christian virtue. And Capote, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, certainly demonstrates compassion for Perry Smith, the killer he befriends during prison visits while doing research for his next book.

But Miller’s movie is a far cry from Dead Man Walking. As we watch Capote cozy up to Smith (compellingly played by Clifton Collins Jr.) in his death-row cell, it’s clear that we’re witnessing a seduction. Capote, presenting himself as a cross between a priest offering absolution and a PR man advocating Smith’s release, presents himself as the killer’s only friend in the world. Then, his compassion morphs into opportunism and artistic zeal, drawing out the details he will use in his damning prose. If I leave here without understanding you, he half-whispers, like a little red devil on Smith's shoulder, the world will see you as a monster. And I don't want that. And yet, without blinking, he laughingly boasts to friends such as Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), author of To Kill a Mockingbird, that Smith is a gold mine, and that his project is the nonfiction book of the decade. Viewers will respond with conflicting feelings about the man as they watch his fascinating fluctuations between pity and pride, sympathy and selfishness.

Much of the credit for the film’s success should go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose impersonation is so thorough and intense that he commands our attention in every scene. Hoffman, an unpredictable and impressive actor with an increasingly stellar record, could have turned Capote into a flamboyant show. Capote’s fashion sense and mannerisms made him stand out in a crowd like a lit-up Christmas tree in a dark forest. But the actor digs much deeper than that, intriguing us with hints of a complex, tormented interior life. His subtlety and his silences are as arresting as that famously pinched voice. Portraying both the brilliance and the brash ego of the writer, Hoffman, Miller, and screenwriter Dan Futterman give us an honest portrait and let us make up our own minds about him.

Capote’s writing stands as a clear landmark in American literature, but did the ends justify his means? In a time when the news media enthusiastically sensationalizes the failings of others, and then delivers this information with a tone of moral superiority, it is good for audiences to be reminded that the messenger is sometimes guilty too.

* * *

Good Night, and Good Luck, directed with impressive energy by actor George Clooney, is a slickly produced, tightly wound, precisely focused thriller set in a newsroom, where the cameras follow journalists around intently, just as they do on television’s E.R., where Clooney got his start. It’s an exhilarating ride that almost resembles a horror movie. As the newsmen plot their next moves in exposing the corrupt Communist-hunting methods of Senator Joe McCarthy, you half-expect a corporate or government boogeyman to jump out from a shadowy corner and tear somebody’s throat out.

As we look over the shoulders of famous figures in the CBS newsroom circa 1953, we see the legendary news anchor Edward R. Murrow, played with riveting precision by the rarely seen but extraordinary David Strathairn. Strathairn’s slow-burn intensity anchors the otherwise frenzied film. By slow-burn intensity, I mean that it looks like he has just swallowed several of his own smoldering cigarettes, and is now trying to digest them. As he delivers his devastating news reports, he fixes a penetrating stare as if trying to paralyze his audience with his eyes. His body is tense, ready to dodge the bullet in the event that someone might find a way to fire back at him through the television.

We watch as Murrow goes through weeks of relentless pressure, trying to inform the American public about the abuses of power set in motion by McCarthy in his ruthless, punishing search for Russian spies and communists during the height of the Cold War. Murrow must succeed without calling down the wrath of CBS corporate, without losing his show and its place of privilege, without ruining the lives of those who risk their careers to support him (played by Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and others). He must constantly tighten the screws, take inventory, and check his battleship to ensure that there are no weak points vulnerable to counterattack. He mustn’t lie or editorialize inappropriately. In short, he must serve up the truth, and let the truth do its work.

If only the filmmakers were as responsible as their inspiring hero. As soon as Good Night, and Good Luck opened, sources such as The Washington Post and Slate began calling the film’s details into question. Apparently, Murrow was not the first brave newsman to pursue McCarthy, as the film suggests. Nor did all of McCarthy’s claims turn out to be fabrications and paranoia, although the film would like us to believe they were. Clooney and company are justified in their desire to celebrate journalistic integrity, but in the frenzy of their contempt for McCarthy’s ruthless and heartless methods, they lose sight of the context in which these events played out. There were indeed Communist spies infiltrating the United States during those years. Some level of investigation was warranted. The film may be in black and white, but the issues on the table were anything but.

Still, you can expect crowds currently disillusioned with the government to cheer as if Good Luck is nothing but gospel truth. We should indeed cheer the principles on display here, but we should take Clooney’s version of the details with several grains of salt.

* * *

It’s uncanny and unfortunate how closely James Mangold’s film about Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, follows the narrative arc of last year's Oscar-winning Ray: Hard childhood. Brother dies tragically. Musician seeks fortune. Musician has affairs. Musician abuses drugs. Musician attains glory. But screenwriter Gil Dennis brings spirit, energy, and humor to the story, with both eyes on Cash’s autobiographies. The words are brought to vivid life by Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as his lifelong dream girl, June Carter Cash.

You can sense the fan-boy enthusiasm Burnett, Mangold, and soundtrack genius T-Bone Burnett have for recreating such legendary hours as Cash’s audition for the famous producer Sam Phillips (played here by Dallas Roberts), which stands among the film’s most compelling and memorable moments, and Cash's subsequent rise to fame with Sun Records, alongside such giants as Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Phoenix brilliantly develops Cash from a naïve young soldier to a battle-scarred, reckless, rock-n-roll Tyrannosaurus Rex. You’d be hard-pressed to name an actor working today who could do a better job. Phoenix masters both the walk and that deep drawl — a voice as distinct as John Wayne’s. Phoenix has finally stepped out from the shadow of his famous big brother, the late River Phoenix, who also played a country music singer in The Thing Called Love.

Witherspoon matches him, stride for stride, song for song, in her best performance yet. Her accent never falters. She turns Cash and Carter's debates and duets into fiery, compelling sequences. They're a joy to watch.

Yes, it’s a powerful, glamorous, colorful production. But Mangold and Dennis make a grave error in framing the film not as a story of a prodigal son answering the call of God’s grace, but as a man who overcomes unfortunate obstacles (namely, a wife and beautiful daughters) to attain his true dream — the other woman, June Carter. Looking at the whole of Cash’s life, we can see that human catastrophes became a context in which God worked out a powerful story of redemption. But in this version of the story, Cash’s faith is a throwaway issue. Mangold wants us to believe that a story of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and a saving faith was instead a story of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and a saving infidelity.

Mangold’s version may, indeed, stick to the true details of this chapter of Cash’s life, but given only these details, it’s easy to come to the wrong conclusion. Think of what men who are tempted to be unfaithful to their wives might learn from watching this film. It could suggest to them that, although their children will have broken hearts, the glory of a new romance, and the adventures it opens up, will make the damage worthwhile.

The real victories of Cash’s life have nothing to do with escaping one marriage to establish another, nor do they have to do with record-breaking album sales (a detail the film announces as its triumphant send-off.) The true victory of Cash’s life is expressed in the gospel hope that filled his lyrics. Cash’s Folsom Prison concert makes him the anti-Sinatra — when he did it his way, he nearly destroyed himself. When he surrendered to God’s way, he found peace at last.


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