Film “Capote” Raises Disturbing Ethical Questions

If there is a scandal in the making of the best-selling non-fiction book of 1966, it’s not about the facts contained in the 368 pages of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Virtually every detail about the brutal murder of the Clutter family has stood up to forty years of scrutiny. When it comes to Capote, the devil is not in the details; it’s in how he got to those details in the first place.

Capote lied to his interview subjects, defiled the corpses of the murder victims, arranged for legal representation for two cold-blooded killers, and may have even fallen in love with one of them. For Capote, the end justified his unscrupulous means, and he surely sent a message to some aspiring journalists over the years.

The film “Capote” hit theaters this winter just as The New York Times was parting with its reporter Judith Miller, largely over her inaccurate stories about Iraq’s weapons capabilities. Discredited journalists such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass have become household names, epitomizing the very worst of journalistic ambition. To some, the events portrayed in “Capote” represent the beginning of the end, the top of that slippery slope down which the profession of journalism has slid.

Capote, portrayed brilliantly by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, travels to a world both familiar and foreign to the Southern-born writer who had grown accustomed to the high life in New York. Hoffman does a dead-on Capote, with his high-pitched voice and a flamboyance that might even shock today’s more gay-friendly culture. It must have been downright unbelievable in the Eisenhower era. He and childhood friend Nell Harper Lee roll into Holcomb, a small Kansas prairie town, to report on the murder of a well-regarded farmer, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon. The murder has clearly shaken up the community, and soon Capote will shake things up further.

PETER W. KLEIN is the CanWest Global Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism. For the past seven years, he was a producer at CBS News 60 Minutes, where he won several awards including an Emmy. He previously worked as a producer at ABC News, and as a print and radio reporter throughout Europe.

He has a Masters Degree from Columbia University and Bachelors degrees in philosophy, science and economics from Pennsylvania State University. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and three children.
In the police station, Capote has a confrontation with a local cop, not over police procedure or access to information, but over fashion. Noting that the detective was staring at his clearly-out-of-town scarf, Capote boasts: “Bergdorf’s.” A few beats later, the officer tips his hat to the writer and says: “Sears Roebuck.”

But Capote really gets the police stirred when he confesses that he is there to portray how this murder has affected the community, not the search for the killers. “Oh, I don’t really care if you catch them or not,” Capote says to Alvin Dewey, the lead detective and a close friend of Mr. Clutter’s. “I do,” shoots back Dewey, portrayed matter-of-factly by Chris Cooper.

What attracted Capote to the small Kansas town in the first place was the affliction that affects all good writers, the pervasive hunt for the next great story. The movie, directed by Bennett Miller and written by Dan Futterman, begins with Capote in New York scanning the paper and settling on the headline-grabbing tale of the Clutter murders. He phones his editor at the New Yorker and says he’s found his next assignment.

After having written Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and several successful films to his credit, Capote was looking for more. Making up characters and stories seemed, perhaps, too easy, but finding real characters with real stories brought an immediacy and truthfulness that the public was ready to devour. Shortly after the book came out, Capote told the famous editor George Plimpton that a “journalistic novel” was brewing inside him, “something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose.” He discovered what the rest of us real journalists figured out a long time ago – that fact can be far more interesting than fiction.

The film conveys Capote’s journalistic adventure. When Capote’s articles about the Clutters first appeared in print, as a multi-part series for the New Yorker, it was a sensation; readers were glued to the pages, and kept coming back week after week. Despite the success, the magazine’s legendary editor, William Shawn, reportedly hated Capote’s portrayal of the Clutter murders, and many prominent writers at the time agreed. Lewis Lapham, writing about this post-Cold Blood era of so-called “New Journalism,” called Capote and the writers who followed in his footsteps “a crowd of self-important Pharisees; the books (including In Cold Blood). . . I would name as the first spawn of the synthetic melodrama that leads, more or less directly, to Oprah and Geraldo.”

It is an appropriate comparison, given that, by 1959, Capote was a regular on the talk show circuit. What really distinguished the successful novelist and screenwriter as an up-and-coming journalist wasn’t so much his tenacity or his reporting skills, but rather his fame. Capote flashed his name like a press pass, gaining access to the two killers in prison that no other reporter could get.

With fame, though, came fault. At the party celebrating his friend Harper Lee’s successful movie portrayal of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Capote could think only of himself, and reveals one of the many cracks in his ethical code of conduct, lamenting that the two killers’ death-row appeals are delaying the ending of his book. Lee smiles, disappointedly, then turns away.

Lee is the moral centre of this film and, one can imagine, for the real Capote’s life. In Holcomb, she smoothes over Capote’s social faux pas. But while we see her doing much of the initial legwork in Kansas, it’s Capote who walks into the funeral home and opens the caskets of the dead family members, examining their severed faces which were blown off by the killer’s rifle. Lee keeps her hands clean; Capote gets them dirty.

A defining clue of Capote’s ethical barometer comes when he spies one of the two killers, Perry Smith, in a small cell in the sheriff’s quarters. Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr., asks Capote for an aspirin. The writer struggles with the request, but eventually brings him the pill. “I could kill you if you got too close,” Smith jokes, but Capote doesn’t blink. Soon, we see the writer feeding the young inmate baby food after Smith goes on a hunger strike in jail.

At what point Capote crosses that fuzzy line is unclear, but, by the end of the film, one has the distinct sense he has left it far behind. Does bringing porno to Smith’s more violent partner, Dick Hickock, constitute an ethical breach? What about encouraging Smith to keep a journal, knowing full well Capote planned to read it? How about hiding the transparent title from the two killers,leading them to believe he is writing about their unjust trial?

Despite Capote’s access to the murderers, neither man has told the writer any details about the murder. The author realizes he needs time to draw it out of Smith, the gentler of the two, so he tells stories of his own childhood, which is strangely similar to Smith’s. He even marvels at one point, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back.” At times, the film suggests Capote has a crush on the macho killer, and it seems oddly reciprocal. While he drops off smut magazines in front of Hickock’s cell, he brings novels to Smith, who looks forward to discussing literature with the illustrious author.

However, by the time Smith and Hickock are convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, Capote still doesn’t have a firsthand account of the night of the killings. So he arranges for some prominent lawyers to represent the two convicted killers’ appeal in a bald-faced attempt to delay their inevitable hanging, so Capote can get the “money quote”.

It’s hard to imagine that the New Yorker sanctioned this obvious breach of journalistic conduct, but Capote was no ordinary journalist. Just as Judy Miller got away with her front-page reports about Iraq’s supposed weapons, and Bob Woodward successfully hid his involvement in the Valerie Plame inquiry, so Truman Capote was apparently able to throw the weight of his name around and get just what he wanted.

People like Woodward once represented all that’s good in journalism, and Hollywood loved it. “All The President’s Men” was a big hit, and painted a picture of reporters as heroes. So did “The Killing Fields,” about a crusading foreign correspondent in Cambodia, and “Deadline U.S.A.,” in which Humphrey Bogart plays a heroic newspaper publisher (written and directed, oddly enough, by Richard Brooks, who made the film version of “In Cold Blood”).
Someone in Hollywood must have seen a recent Gallup Poll in which barely half of respondents said they trusted the media. “Capote” capitalizes on that distrust. Indeed, it seems to be the right time for this film.