Of course, it all had to have a moral; it is, after all, a Hollywood film and an artist who sells his soul cannot be seen to walk away unburned. 'Capote' is a good film - it might have been a better one had we been allowed to think for ourselves about the morality of its hero's exploitation of his human material without being ponderously told, in titles, with wispy piano chords in the background, that he never finished another book. Dan Futterman's screenplay shows us the issues without the need for preaching; Bennett Miller should have trusted him and his stars and his audience a little more.
Catherine Keener's magisterial scene-strealing performance as Harper Lee elegantly conveys quite enough condemnation with an occasional raised eyebrow to lead us where we need to go, and she combines this with an irritated affection for her old friend that makes clear how complex such matters are. Hers is only one of several impressive and self-effacing performances that provide the ensemble which allows Philip Seymour Hoffman to shine; Clifton Collins Jr as the doomed killer Perry Smith, Bob Balaban as Shawn of the New Yorker and Bruce Greenwood as Capote's long-suffering lover Jack all provide solid partnership in a film that relies on duets far more than it does on arias. One of the things that the Hollywood biopic has always been best at is providing us with rows and rows of actors doing a proper job of acting; 'Capote' is an exemplary piece of work in that respect at least.
At the centre of the film is a performance of sheer bravura - the portly Hoffman portrays the much-remembered pixy Capote so effectively that we are reminded of the fact that a great impersonation does not need any particular physical resemblance. Hoffman gets the Southern priss voice and the confidential manner and the gliding walk - he also gets the underlying steely toughness. When Capote tells an adolescent girl that 'ever since I was a child, people have thought they have me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk. And they're always wrong' there is a sudden chill in the cinema. To be a quietly belligerent sissy in the America of the 1950s, Capote needed endless reserves, had better things to do than to be nice.
He spotted the murder of a rich farmer and his family as a gold mine of material even before one of the killers turned out to be a desperately sad murderous waif capable of self-improvement and occasional flashes of talent. Futterman's script and Hoffman's performance inhabit fully the colossal ambiguity of this relationship. To get close to Perry Smith and his co-killer Capote had to provide them with proper lawyers and become their intimate; for his book, the only memorial they and their victims would have, to be the financial and artistic success he wanted it to be, Capote needed to see them hang.
In a sense, this film renders irrelevant the question of whether 'In Cold Blood' was in fact the masterpiece it was claimed as at the time. Hoffman's Capote says presciently that it is a book which will change the nature of American writing and this, for good and ill, was the case; without it, neither Hunter Thompson nor Dave Eggers would have had a career, and an American feminism much weighed down by the confessional would have chosen the political over the personal.. The film's cinematography, full of long shots of Kansas fields and dour penitentiaries, and closeups of Capote holding literary court as if in a group portrait of the significant, bludgeons us into a belief that what we are seeing is important - needlessly, since a lighter touch would have conveyed the same message.
The question of whether Capote betrayed the two petty crooks he immortalized is unanswerable; it is, however, important that it be asked. In another of the telling exchanges in which Futterman so effectively deals, Capote says 'I couldn't have done anything to save them' and Harper Lee responds ' Maybe not, Truman. But the truth is you didn't want to'. Inasmuch as his relationship with Perry includes, on both sides, an element of flirtation as well as of nurturing and betrayal, This becomes, all the more effectively because never explicitly, a story of impossible. doomed and perverse desire set aside for the sake of Art.
By allowing himself the intimacy with his subjects that meant he could get them to tell him how and why they butchered their victims, Capote was as hard on himself as he was on them. Rarely has the act of capital punishment seemed as entirely obscene as it does here, yet Capote's presence at the hanging demonstrates the entire seriousness of his enterprise. The fact Hoffman is as totally Capote at such moments as he is telling high-pitched anecdotes at parties makes this a dignified film; without editorializing at the end, by allowing for the possibility that his betrayals were justified by his work, this might have been an interestingly dangerous one as well.
I e-mailed Dan Levitin about his book on music and neuroscience and, as a result, he has asked if he can cite the points I made. Citations in a proper science book are one of those points at which I start to think I might be an intellectual.