With the concepts of artistic representation and exploitation becoming hopelessly blurred, the need for Capote couldn't be more compelling. The movie, a dramatized account of novelist Truman Capote's immersion in the real-life murder case that inspired his classic In Cold Blood, will be lauded most intensely for actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's spot-on Capote impersonation. What genuinely distinguishes the film, though, is its willingness to ask questions many of which have no clear-cut answers about the basic decency of using true events to one's personal advantage.
Though the time frame is the late 1950s, the seeds of "reality programming" are all there as Capote arrives in rural Kansas to investigate the slaying of a four-member farming family. With him is his old friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), whose Southern gentility is welcomed more warmly by the locals than Capote's New York sophistication. (How invigorating it is to see Hoffman's hysterically accurate flouncing refracted through the prism of the Eisenhower-era Midwest.) But Capote's wit and celebrity eventually win over crucial contacts like lawman Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), enabling the author to gather vital information for a book he's convinced will pioneer a bold new genre: the "nonfiction novel."
The suspected culprits are soon caught, and here is where the movie and Capote go into motivational overdrive. Bribing his way into regular contact with the prisoners, the writer finds himself empathizing with one of them, the strangely proper Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). Or is it really empathy? The movie suggests that it might be lust, or worse: Though Capote professes kinship with Smith, who is likewise the product of a sad upbringing, his avowed commitment to the doomed man begins to look ever more like careerism especially when the death sentence that both killers ultimately earn is held up by years of appeals. How is poor, put-upon Truman ever going to finish his book if the state refuses to put an end to the story?
A far more responsible biopic than Good Night, and Good Luck, Capote dares to show its subject's every blemish his egomania, his alcoholism, his almost sadistic manipulation of a world he's determined will not marginalize him. It all coalesces in a scene in which Capote selfishly confesses his impatience with the case to Lee, who in the interim has managed to publish her masterwork, To Kill a Mockingbird, and see it turned into a movie. (Keener smartly draws on the one touchstone most of us have of her character's "voice": the honeyed narration in the Mockingbird film.)
Still, filmmaker Bennett Miller (The Cruise) never questions the quality of Capote's writing, nor its essentiality. A restaged public reading of an excerpt from Capote's novel reveals that the man's prose was indescribably moving and renders superfluous another scene in which his editor (Bob Balaban) avers that In Cold Blood may change the way books are written. Thanks, but we had already sussed that out.
Great writing, Miller proposes, is beyond judgment, even if people are not. The deepest value of Capote is to see its title character walk a tightrope between real caring and the opportunism of the commercial artist. There's always the chance that he will come too late to a truth every would-be chronicler of tragedy should heed: that real life is always more important than the version you get to put your name on.