Creation myths of the fourth estate: Hollywood finds melodrama in journalistic integrity
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 December 2005)

In their most self-indulgent moments, journalists imagine themselves standing at the centre of great events, shaping reality. In quite different ways, Edward R. Murrow and Truman Capote, two eminent American figures in the mid-20th-century United States, took themselves and their accomplishments very seriously. After all, one of them was helping create television journalism and the other was inventing, he claimed, "the non-fiction novel." This season, we can see each of them portrayed in a movie that turns the workings of journalism into melodrama.

These films mostly ignore private lives and emphasize instead how a TV show and a book were made. Good Night, and Good Luck concerns the attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy produced by Murrow and his colleagues at CBS; Capote devotes most of its time to the five years Truman Capote spent on his most successful book, In Cold Blood. As movies must, both of them exaggerate the events they reproduce, raising Murrow's expose to the level of a national crisis and turning Capote's conflicted feelings into a life-destroying derangement.

In the 1940s, Murrow began developing TV journalism for CBS after winning a reputation with his wartime radio reports from England. As inspired talent scouts and coaches, he and his producer, Fred Friendly, installed the male TV reporter as a crucial figure in the public imagination. With their Brylcreemed hair, starched-white shirts and nicotine-coated lungs, "Murrow's boys" became the elite corps of journalism.

In Good Night, and Good Luck, most of the actors (especially Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella and David Strathairn as Murrow) efficiently capture that long-ago time. Only George Clooney, as Friendly, gets it wrong. He's out of place, too easygoing for the era. And his involvement in this movie (director, co-star, co-author of the script) raises an embarrassing question.

He opens and closes the film with a famous Murrow speech, one of his notorious holier-than-thou moments. In grim puritan tones, Murrow declared that TV must enlighten rather than divert the masses. By emphasizing that talk, Clooney makes the film an anti-TV sermon as well as a dissection of McCarthyism. But is Clooney the man to make that point? In the 1990s, he won his position in the business by starring in precisely the kind of show Murrow disdained -- ER, the sex-and-scalpel soap opera. On this issue, Clooney's position is shaky. So was Murrow's, of course. His weekly interview show, Person to Person, prepared the ground for Barbara Walters and armies of others.

In 1954, Murrow turned his sights on McCarthy, the communist-hunting senator who left his name attached to the era.

Spraying lies in every direction, carelessly destroying careers and lives, McCarthy briefly made himself a much-feared national figure. If you believe Good Night, and Good Luck, Murrow's revelations about McCarthy's lies stopped the demagogue in his tracks.

But there were other reasons McCarthy fell, such as his style; eventually everyone noticed that he talked like the villain in a bad crime movie. And many publications, including Time magazine, hated him. Finally, a congressional investigation put his devious tricks on display. ABC, then a relatively poor network, broadcast the hearings for 36 days, at the end of which McCarthy's reputation was wrecked. Three years later, at age 48, he died of alcoholism.

Capote presents its hero as a writer who developed a grand ambition to do "a really serious big work," a novel-like book in which all the facts would be true. His story, as told in Bennett Miller's film, doesn't involve national issues but comes across as far more serious and subtle than Murrow's. He set out to build his work around the killing in 1959 of the four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan., by two criminal drifters, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Eventually both killers were executed, but not before Capote searched their lives, and the community of Holcomb, for every possible ounce of drama.

Truman Capote had a talent for friendship and a propensity for betrayal. He was shrewd, selfish and merciless when pursuing his desires. Philip Seymour Hoffman, dealing with a character whose whole life was a performance, acts him with conviction and precision; in Hoffman's hands, all the contradictions and neuroses of Capote's personality make dramatic sense.

Capote is a reporter's story in which the main character serves as both hero and villain. He's heroic because his devotion to his craft goes far beyond anything that's expected of him; he climbs a mountain of literary difficulties, and we climb with him. But he's villainous because he exploits his subjects even if he has to deny his own feelings to do it. He likes and maybe loves Perry Smith, but after years of work and waiting he wants both killers dead, so that In Cold Blood can have a proper ending. He promises to find them a new lawyer who might get their sentences commuted, and then casually breaks that promise.

Eventually, his impatience turned shameless. He wrote to a friend, "As you may have heard, the Supreme Court denied the appeals, so maybe something will soon happen one way or another. I've been disappointed so many times I hardly dare hope." Capote's childhood friend, Harper Lee, who was writing her own famous best-seller, To Kill a Mockingbird, helped Capote with his research and in the process lost much of her respect for him. After the men die, the film has Capote say he couldn't have saved them; and Lee says, "Maybe not. But the fact is you didn't want to."

The filmmakers try to tie up their story with a neat moral: Capote's self-loathing led to heavy drinking and drug use, which led to death at age 59 from liver disease, 19 years after In Cold Blood. As Capote once said, "The only one who can destroy a really strong and talented writer is himself."

But his life doesn't contain the neat ending that the hanging of Smith and Hickock gave to his book. As his biographers say, there were many other reasons for despair. Still, if Capote doesn't explain why he destroyed himself, it does take us much further into the mysteries of reporting than Good Night, and Good Luck. It also contributes to the widening debate on journalistic values, conducted in movies, TV shows and within journalism itself. Capote provides an exceptionally thoughtful look at the more alarming techniques involved in the act of capturing facts on paper.

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