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COMMENTARY

Journalists give as well as take

The film 'Capote' addresses the moral quandary that reporters face in dealing with their sources -- a rather topical dilemma, no?

November 25, 2005|Julia Keller | Chicago Tribune

A dingy yellow light suffuses the film "Capote." It is, if I'm not mistaken, the light of Moral Ambiguity, and I'll bet they even have it labeled that way in the lighting director's official handbook. "Moral Ambiguity: Tint No. 7," it might read, not to be confused with "Outraged Innocence: Tint No. 4" (a blithe golden shade edged with nervous red) or "Gross and Unwieldy Ambition: Tint No. 678" (a crepuscular purple).

We are meant to understand, from the slightly sickly sheen this light throws upon the people and places of "Capote," that questionable ethics are afoot. The bleak light makes everyone -- especially Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the peculiar fellow whose "In Cold Blood" created a new literary genre, and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), the killer whose lousy childhood and soulful yearnings are chronicled in that book -- seem slightly out of moral focus.

In the journalism world that "Capote" depicts, everybody's using everybody else. It's all an appalling pageant of betrayal and exploitation.

This is an odd time for journalism, an unsettling time, and among its challenges is an unusual confluence of truth and imagination. Movies such as "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" have arrived in the same mail drop as the still-unfolding escapades of one Judith Miller, the recently retired New York Times reporter who went to jail rather than reveal a source -- that's good -- but who also wrote now-discredited stories that helped legitimize the invasion of Iraq, which is not so good.

Art and life, which already tend to monopolize each other's dance cards, are once again locked in the suffocating embrace of a mysterious waltz:

Journalists are heroes ("Good Night, and Good Luck," the story of legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow's verbal takedown of Sen. Joseph McCarthy).

No, they're bums (Miller's role in spreading the misinformation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction).

Wrong. Journalists are heroes (Miller's fight to preserve the sanctity of the anonymous source).

Nope -- bums ("Capote").

Such moments, moments when real-life events occur just as works of art come along and travel down the same road, are always instructive. Art can tell us things that cold reality can't. And reality tethers art to the solid ground of topicality, making it hard to dismiss a film or a novel as just a mess of airy musings. "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" are as urgently up-to-date as breaking news bulletins.

Devil's bargain

What I like best about "Capote," a very good film about a very troubled writer, is the way it expands and enriches a central journalistic issue that was left incomplete by Janet Malcolm's important book "The Journalist and the Murderer" (Vintage, 1990).

Malcolm explored the dispute between Jeffrey MacDonald, the physician convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and children, and author Joe McGinniss, whom MacDonald hired to write his side of the story. Along the way, McGinniss changed his mind about the case -- MacDonald was guilty, McGinniss decided -- and the resulting book was, needless to say, not what MacDonald had in mind.

"The Journalist and the Murderer" is about the devil's bargain into which subjects enter with their chroniclers, the queasy-making quid pro quo that trades access for ink. Should MacDonald have trusted McGinniss -- or any journalist? Did McGinniss deliberately dupe MacDonald?

Malcolm, one of the sharpest, most courageous and astute cultural observers of our time, came up with this zinger of an 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 continues, "He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." It's almost as if she saw an advance screening of "Capote" years before its creation.

The trouble with Malcolm's analysis, however, is that it ignores the value of what nonfiction writers do accomplish with their work -- whether or not it takes advantage of a source's "vanity, ignorance, or loneliness." Yes, Capote wormed his way into the lives of the people of Holcomb, Kan., to get the goods for his book. But what a book: "In Cold Blood" is brilliant. It's a unique evocation of a place, a time and a crime that -- thanks to Capote's skill -- still vibrates with terrifying intensity. It's history, it's literature, and had Capote not "exploited" people -- had he stayed in New York with his pals and his pajamas and his cocktail shakers -- we wouldn't have "In Cold Blood." This is what Malcolm misses: no bargaining between subject and scribe, no book. No exploitation, no masterpiece.

Balancing act

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