Monday, February 13, 2006

Film Review - Capote

The competition for this year’s Oscar for Best Picture of the Year is fierce. Four of the five contenders bears a partisan political message, a clear demonstration that the whiny liberal Hollywood elitists, the very same who two years ago stood as the face of their uncharismatic candidate, are not taking the second term of the Bush Administration sitting down. First we have Crash, a low-budget drama which trots out the age-old cliché that America is an inherently racist society, making life a veritable Hell for anyone who is not white or Catholic in this post-September 11th environment. It serves as a certifiable guilt-trip, pressuring its audience to praise it lest they be accused of being racist. Ironically, the second Best Picture nominee, director George Clooney’s ‘historical’ drama, Good Night and Good Luck, assumes all Republicans are paranoid bigots who irrationally assume the federal government of the United States will be infiltrated by Communists. Regardless of the fact that Senator Joseph McCarthy, the partisan picture’s primary target of ridicule, was right in his assumptions, Clooney’s black-and-white drama stands to serve as a reflective commentary on the ‘resurgence’ of ‘McCarthyism’ in post-September 11th America.

The third candidate is Ang Lee’s critically hailed romantic-drama, Brokeback Mountain, a film which has been condemned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting as ‘morally offensive’ for promoting homosexuality as emanating from a ‘deep-seated human love’, while others still contend that the way in which the two leads treat each emotionally reflects poorly on the gay community. And Munich, a commentary on the continuing Israeli-Palestinian Middle East crisis, is the most surprising nominee of them all. Having been snubbed by both the BAFTA and the Golden Globes earlier this year, it is safe to assume Steven Spielberg’s name may have played a vital role in the selection of this film. However, it may also have to do with the picture’s message, one which some critics insists advocates a pro-Palestinian agenda. What sets Barrett Miller’s directorial debut, Capote, apart as the dark-horse favorite is that it is the sole contender without a political motive.

The story for Capote is nothing short of sheer brilliance. Dave Futterman’s vibrant screenplay, surprisingly his first, only covers a narrow period of the writer’s life, specifically the five years or so he spent tirelessly constructing his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, but this solitary event would forever change his life. It relies heavily on comprehensive dialogue rather then conventional imagery to portray the conflicting personalities of Truman Capote. As the picture’s title and one-sheet befittingly suggest, the sole focus of the screenplay is on one man and one man alone, Truman Capote. From the very beginning audiences are presented with a frank, no-holds-bar encounter of the brilliant yet incessantly self-absorbed author. With the exception of a few select scenes scattered throughout the picture, there is not a moment in which Truman Capote is not front and center of the camera. Essentially Capote is Oscar-nominated performer Philip Seymour Hoffman’s picture to command which he proceeds to do with startling refinement and pose. However, Hoffman’s ingenuity in bringing the celebrated author back to life, this time on the silver screen, would have been an entirely fruitless effort if not for the poignantly crafted screenplay by Dan Futterman based on the biographical novel by Gerald Clarke. Hauntingly brilliant, Capote leaves audiences aghast long after the movie has ended.

Philip Seymour Hoffman who has amassed a prodigious amount of both critical and public acknowledgment in recent months for his performance as the accomplished and narcissistic writer, Truman Capote, is decisively deserving of recognition, giving a truly Oscar-caliber performance unlike any other performer in recent Academy Award history. Hoffman gracefully balances the two seemingly diametric personalities of Truman Capote – the ostentatious New York City night owl who regales his fellow club-hoppers with tales of gossip and dirty humor and the assiduous journalist who twists and contorts the minds and feelings of others to achieve the result he so desires. This of course comes to a head when he interviews Perry Smith, a convicted murderer on death row who has the exact same duplicitous intentions with the writer as he does of him, for his non-fiction novel. Squaring off in a soaring battle of competing egos, this is a true highlight of the picture. Truman Capote was a devotedly pretentious individual, arguably one of the most pontifical journalists in American history. Although his novels, particularly Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, are world renowned, he himself remains an allusive and necromantic figure to this day. It is his self-dilated ego which ultimately leads to his very downfall at the hands of drug and alcohol abuse.

Relative unknown actor Clifton Collins Jr. gives what can best be described as the paramount performance of his career as convicted murderer Perry Smith. In practically every way, Smith serves as a near-mirror reflection of author Truman Capote, a discovery which when confronted frightens him and leads him to a life of alcoholism and drug abuse. So much like Capote, Smith wears a distinctive mask shielding his true identity which varies depending on the situation at hand and with whom he is speaking to. From their initial encounter, Capote sees in Smith a sympathetic, artistic soul, not all that different from his own, forced unwilling into a life of crime and murder stemming from a lifetime of neglect and abuse growing up. However, we soon come to realize as we eventually do with Capote himself that this is merely an abject façade used to further his own ends. Even at the point where he details the events which led to the killing of the Clutter family, he exudes an aura of pretension deceptively portraying him as a caring soul. He heralds how he prevented his partner-in-crime Richard Hickock from raping the family’s sixteen year-old daughter, Nancy, and cut down Herbert Clutter who was hanging against the wall with his hands above his head because he looked ‘uncomfortable’. “I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman”, Smith relates to the author, “I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat”. The graphic depiction of murder of each of the four family members which soon follows reveals to us the true identity of the monster, apart from the manipulations and lies.

Regardless of who is the true focal point of Capote, it is author Harper Lee, demurely portrayed by Academy Award-nominated actress Catherine Keener, with whom audiences epitomize with the most. As we all might well have done in her shoes, Lee takes Truman’s rather dampening and swaggering mannerisms with a sense of humor about her, wittingly playing off his egocentric persona. However, audiences will perceptibly notice a protracting shift in Lee’s attitude toward her childhood friend as the picture goes on. As her own stock rises in the literary community with the publication of her first and only novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird, she becomes increasingly emotionally distant from him. She is less receptive of his cynical nature, candidly confronting him in their continued conversations. For example, in one of their last conversations together, Truman, immobilized in a fit of depression as he awaits the execution of convicted murderers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, professes to Lee that he “couldn't have done anything to save them”. She in turn replies, “Maybe not, Truman. But the truth is, you didn't want to”, accosting him about his self-perpetuated obsession with his book and his own celebrity and not his subject matter.

And Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper gives an articulate performance, albeit a limited one, in the role of Alvin Dewey, sheriff of Holcomb, a small rural Kansas community where the four members of the Clutter family were murdered.

Overall, Barrett Miller’s major directorial debut surpasses nearly every expectation the American movie-going public has come to expect from journalistic crime-dramas and the biopic genre in general, setting a new standard in independent motion picture filmmaking. Unlike its four other Best Picture contenders, each vying ambitiously for the golden statuette at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Capote is the least politically charged of them all. Yes, the Barrett Miller picture does confront the issue of the death penalty, but rather then deliver a lopsided opinion it instead leaves the question of capital punishment open-ended. It should be noted however that with the graphic depiction of the violent murders any argument against the death penalty in this regard is relatively mute. Although in the case of the recent execution of ‘Tookie’ Williams, stranger things have happened. Surprisingly Truman Capote’s homosexuality, an issue the American media has specifically taken up in labeling the film a politically motivated picture, is firmly downplayed. While the movie does acknowledge his partner Jack Dunphy’s confidential role in the author’s life at this critical juncture in his career, a role which becomes increasingly isolated as his alcohol abuse escalates, not once does the screenplay in fact directly recognize his sexual preference. Even with no previous knowledge of the journalist’s lifestyle, scenes in which Truman Capote’s mannerisms are flamboyant and effeminate, like when he calls his lover from a Kansas hotel wearing a female linen bathrobe, his sexuality is rather blatant. Capote’s sexuality is not nor should it be an issue in this film. And even if it were, as the partisan American media would like it to be, Truman Capote’s unscrupulous journalistic tactics are not the sort of principles and values the gay/lesbian community would likely epitomize. If anything in relation of politics, Capote reflects badly on the seemingly profiteering nature of the journalistic community and seedy tactics of the media in general. Dynamically scored, artistically choreographed, and rich dialogue, Capote is without question ‘the’ movie to beat this year for Best Picture.

My Rating: ***** out of 5 (Grade: A+)