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The Constant Compromise

Films about Edward R. Murrow and Truman Capote take a dark view of journalism.



Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote view journalism as an intricate mix of principles, bravado, and negotiation. Working in a minefield, their star journalists are victims of their vocations. Good Night, and Good Luck, set in the early 50s, celebrates Edward R. Murrow's bravery, eloquence, and sense of justice in challenging Joseph McCarthy at the height of his power—a kind of heroism that evokes John Wayne's in a western like Rio Bravo (a movie I cherish, though its view of good and evil is similarly unshaded). Good Night, and Good Luck—named for Murrow's sign-off line—also explores how internal politics at CBS were shaped by the network's relations with its sponsors. The victimization of Murrow can be seen in his early death from lung cancer—his chain smoking, like James Agee's and Albert Camus', was somehow connected in the public mind with his moral seriousness—and in the way his weekly show, See It Now, was bumped to a Sunday-afternoon slot after he challenged McCarthy. The whole story's seen from the vantage point of a 1958 tribute to Murrow, at which he spoke almost as warily about the future of television as Dwight Eisenhower did about the future of the military-industrial complex during his farewell speech as president three years later.

George Clooney's second feature as a director is effectively shot in black and white, evoking the television screens of the time, and it's confined to tellingly cramped interiors—the CBS studios in Manhattan, an adjacent bar, a nearby hotel room. The film adopts, somewhat insidiously, the myth that life was simpler back in 1953 and '54, and it offers Murrow as a lesson for today, as if to ask, "Why can't our newscasters show the integrity and nobility he did?" It cagily combines archival footage of McCarthy with actors playing the CBS staffers—a very convincing David Strathairn as Murrow, Clooney as producer Fred Friendly, Frank Langella as top honcho William Paley, Jeff Daniels as second-in-command Sig Mickelson, and Ray Wise, Robert Downey Jr., and Patricia Clarkson as members of Murrow's production team. Downey and Clarkson's characters were married secretly in violation of CBS policy; they're the only characters ever shown intimately, and their fears are depicted as emblematic of the cold-war atmosphere. It's an interesting way to represent the past, though the use of space, actors, and archival footage seems more theatrical than cinematic.

Among the things I learned from the film is the story of Milo Radulovich, who was booted out of the air force without a trial in 1953 because he refused to denounce his father, a Serbian immigrant, and sister for their alleged communist activities. Murrow picked up the story from the Detroit News, and five weeks later the air force cleared Radulovich of all charges. Emboldened, Murrow attacked McCarthy more directly on his show a few months later.

I was reminded of a recent story in which the editors at Arcade Publishing of New York contracted to print a collection of contemporary Iranian literature in English translation, only to discover that because Iran was on America's enemies list, they'd have to get a permit from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control or face $1 million fines and ten-year prison sentences. Arcade saw this as a violation of the First Amendment and filed a lawsuit in federal court. Ten weeks later the Treasury Department, without responding directly to the lawsuit, issued a general license that allowed Arcade to "freely engage in most ordinary publishing activities" involving countries on the enemies list. The collection, "Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature," came out a few months ago.

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Capote—an account of Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood, about the seemingly motiveless slaying of an entire family in rural Kansas in 1959 and the execution of the two killers five and a half years later—sees the book as a supreme literary achievement, a judgment I don't share. More provocatively and persuasively, it demonstrates that Capote had to destroy himself to write this best seller and explores moral dilemmas that are considerably more nuanced and interesting than any of those faced by Clooney's Murrow. Capote has been skillfully and economically put together by two friends, writer and actor Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller (whose only previous feature was the 1998 documentary The Cruise), and it stars a third friend, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who does a remarkable impersonation of Capote. The credited source is Gerald Clarke's relatively uncritical 1988 biography of the same title, but the film's canvas is much smaller than the book's, and its message is strictly its own.

Capote kept himself out of his book completely, novelistically recounting events and conversations from memory: he claimed to have 94 percent recall, though subsequent evidence suggested otherwise. In Cold Blood is a page-turner that still carries some weight because of Capote's feeling for Perry Smith, one of the killers, and his affinity with him—both had been abused and neglected as children. Capote borrows some of that weight by making one of Smith's climactic lines in the book, a reference to the father of the slain family, one of the film's climactic lines: "I didn't want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat."

The title of Capote's book can be read as a reference not just to the murders but to capital punishment, though he never makes an explicit connection. And he never broaches the ethical dilemma he faced: he befriended both killers and assisted them legally, but when their appeals delayed their execution and the book's completion he withdrew much of his support and didn't tell them. After the two killers were hung, Kenneth Tynan applied the book's title to its author, attacking him for not having done more to save their lives. That drew a hysterical response from Capote; this and other exchanges appear at the end of the 1967 collection Tynan Right & Left.

Despite its strengths, Capote's book never rises above the true-crime genre. Part of its dubious appeal derives from the suspenseful cinematic crosscutting that allows readers to anticipate the gory slaughter of the family. (In the reductive 1967 film adaptation by Richard Brooks, the ghoulishness is made even worse by the Freudian flashbacks to Smith's childhood that attempt to explain the murders while they're occurring.) Capote called his book a "nonfiction novel" and declared himself an innovator; ironically the book has neither the originality he claimed for it nor the novelistic density and intelligence of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song—a book Capote loathed because of its obvious indebtedness to In Cold Blood but one that has a far more interesting and self-critical story to tell, in part because it deals directly with the media's implication in the appeal of true-crime stories.

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Both Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck equate journalistic integrity with accuracy and see compromise as a necessary part of working in the mass media. Murrow attacks McCarthy, then interviews Liberace (also shown in archival footage) to boost his ratings—helping perpetuate the era's myth that Liberace was heterosexual and looking for a wife. In Capote, distinguished partly for the offhand yet honest way it deals with the author's homosexuality, Capote seems more morally confused and self-deceiving than hypocritical—as when he lies to Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) about how much of the book he's written and whether he's come up with a title.

The films themselves also frequently engage in compromise, lying shamelessly and sometimes unnecessarily about some matters yet trying to be scrupulously accurate about others. I suppose this inconsistency could be rationalized as poetic license, but the desire of both movies to combine poetic generalizations with prosaic specifics creates more confusion than clarity.

The publicity material for Good Night, and Good Luck describes the lengths to which the filmmakers went in trying to ensure that period details were right. Yet the film is structured around a glaring anachronism: live performances by a hip black jazz singer (Dianne Reeves) with a quartet in the CBS studios. The implication that one could have seen anything remotely like this on CBS TV on a regular basis during this era is more than a little fanciful. Clooney might defend it as atmosphere and as emblematic of the spontaneity of live TV, but it's so false it taints the more accurate details. The film also speeds past important facts without bothering to explain them. At one point we learn that Murrow has invited McCarthy to be on his show to respond to his criticism, and then we learn that McCarthy has proposed that William F. Buckley do the responding and that this proposal has been rejected by CBS—two bombshells that need more context.

Capote also dispenses with context in its portrayal of Harper Lee (Capote's reclusive, enigmatic childhood friend and research assistant in Kansas, author of To Kill a Mockingbird and not much else) and William Shawn (editor of the New Yorker, which serialized In Cold Blood, implausibly seen flying to Kansas to take care of Capote at the time of the killers' execution). Both are clearly meant to function as narrative props, simplified to the point of banality to keep the focus on Capote.

Yet his story too is overly simplified. A title flashes on the screen at the film's end: "In Cold Blood made Truman Capote the most famous writer in America. He never finished another book." The first sentence is debatable, the second simply wrong. In 1980 he published Music for Chameleons, a collection of nonfiction pieces clearly conceived and organized as a book.

The movie also oversimplifies Capote's artistic decline, which it keeps confusing with his fading mastery of his commercial profile. Even Bob Balaban's Shawn is given some twaddle to deliver about how Capote would eventually change the way people wrote—which was true only to the extent that he got others to confuse market value and aesthetic value. Whether he was trying to elevate true crime to the status of Greek tragedy or trying to reduce Marcel Proust's great novel to mere gossip—part of the implicit aim of his unfinished Answered Prayers—the promotional sleight of hand was essentially the same. There's a reason he's remembered more for things like beating Humphrey Bogart at arm wrestling during the shooting of Beat the Devil than for most of the sentences he wrote.

I'd argue that Capote's most substantial gifts were as a minor but talented fiction writer and that his decline had already started when he decided to abandon those gifts to become a mediocre, if flashy, journalist. His most ambitious early forays into nonfiction using fictional techniques were The Muses Are Heard (1956), about a production of Porgy and Bess touring the USSR, and "The Duke in His Domain" (1957), an interview with Marlon Brando in Kyoto. Both of these first-person narratives are bitchy exercises in the snobbish one-upmanship the New Yorker specialized in at the time. The Muses Are Heard, with its exotic subject and lively prose, is more amusing and nuanced; "The Duke in His Domain" is bereft of insight and distinction, its fashion-plate surface engulfing even Brando and Kyoto. (Capote's complete lack of curiosity about Japan on his first visit there is documented in devastating detail in Donald Richie's recently published Japan Journals.) Capote shows how he had to curb his bitchiness to befriend people in Kansas, but as Answered Prayers makes clear, he stopped restraining himself back in New York.

Perhaps Capote believed that to become a celebrity and celebrity chaser he had to suppress parts of his own identity. The degree to which he wound up strangling his finer impulses as a consequence is a sad story worth reflecting upon.

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