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There are figures that haunt American letters, and one of those is Truman Capote. One of the rock-star-grade literary figures who arose from Manhattan the 1950s, a flamboyantly gay Southerner with an undeniably funny voice, Capote might have been the last person you’d expect to write the book “In Cold Blood.” The first “true crime” book — maybe even the start of the “New Journalism” movement — it told the story of the senseless slaughter of a family on the Kansas prairie, and caused some to question whether Capote had gotten too close to his murderous subjects. To add a little more mystery to the whole thing, Capote never completed another book.
Though it’s been one of the hands-off projects of American literature — mostly because it didn’t fit the neat, heroes-and-villains framework that girds even the most serious Hollywood movies — the story behind “In Cold Blood” has finally reached the screen. What a film it is. Though I longed for more background on Capote himself — his childhood in particular, which saw him abandoned by his mother and raised by maiden aunts — “Capote” is still a revelation, one of the best films of the year.
While “Capote” is beautiful — particularly the chilled-to-the-bone scenes of Kansas, in which the sky becomes another character — the success of the film is mostly due to the stellar cast, headlined by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though it takes awhile to get used to the lisping, nasal speech and nearly drugged mannerisms that were Capote’s trademark and which Hoffman reproduces with digital clarity, once we do, the viewer finds himself immersed in what it is to be Truman Capote — his fears, his prejudices, his peculiar mix of arrogance and self-loathing. Equally good — maybe supporting-actress Oscar good — is Catherine Keener in the role of author and Capote confidante Harper Lee. Though it doesn’t start out that way, she slowly transforms into Capote’s reluctant conscience, and that transformation — which drives between the two friends like a cast-iron wedge — is a beautiful and sad thing to watch.
In all, “Capote” is a simple but brave film, full of those dazzling little moments of beauty and clarity that sort of rush out of the screen and whack you upside the head without much warning. Never patronizing, never plodding, never willing to put Capote on the high shelf where his legend has grown an obscuring coat of dust over the years, it’s one of those films that makes you remember why it is you go to the movies. See it, soon.
<span class="square"></span> While we all like to think that we’d stand up for justice and freedom if push came to shove, the simple fact of the matter is: it’s hard to stick your neck out. This was especially true during the early 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy — a backwater junior senator from Wisconsin — figured out that he could make himself into a household word by monster-shouting about Commies in the government. Even worse was McCarthy’s tactic of branding a Communist — thus destroying their lives and careers — anyone who tried to call him on his facts.
Still, there were some who did. Possibly chief among these was the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow. As seen in the new film “Good Night and Good Luck” (the title draws on the phrase Murrow used to close each night’s broadcast), Murrow and the staff at the early CBS TV news program “See It Now” were some of the few brave enough to publicly take on McCarthy and his tactics. By using McCarthy’s own arrogant and convoluted arguments against him (which led to McCarthy calling Murrow a Communist — normally the kiss of death) Murrow and Company were eventually able to expose the senator for what he was: a power hungry fabricator of Red Scare fictions.
While character actor David Straith-airn does good work in recreating the mannerisms of Murrow in “Good Night and Good Luck” (and has a stellar cast backing him up, including Robert Downey Jr. and George Clooney, who also directs), we never really are able to break through Murrow’s thick hide to the motives that drive him. It was an incredibly risky proposition in those days to challenge McCarthy, and — fighting for truth, justice and the American Way aside — it would have taken a powerful motive to do it, especially for a respected newsman like Murrow. We never quite get that motive, however, just like we never quite get to see Murrow as he lived when not behind the microphone — the human side of the news-gathering machine depicted here. A little of that would have gone a long way, and adding an explanation of motive would have been as easy as having another character turn to him and ask, “Why are you doing this, Ed?” Still, we never get that, and the film suffers from it, coming across as more of a civic lesson than the story of a dragon slayer.
Bottom line: While “Good Night and Good Luck” is an interesting film about interesting times, it manages to jettison much of the blood, sweat and tears that must have passed between Murrow and the “See It Now” crew over the McCarthy stories. While it is still highly watchable, especially for those interested in the McCarthy Era, it is still mostly lacking the human element.