Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Capote" and the ultimate antihero

"If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: 'President Can't Swim.' "
- Lyndon B. Johnson

Thanks to "Brokeback Mountain" and the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Felicity Huffman, many wags have dubbed Hollywood's upcoming coronation night "the gay Oscars."

With "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" both nominated for Best Picture, however, it may be better described as "the journalism Oscars," which to a certain segment of the populace would be just as abhorrent.

And a biopic about Truman Capote, who had the nerve to be both gay and a journalist? Add to this that he was a tremendously talented jerk, and you've got what must be the ultimate antihero.

But in retelling how he got to the truth behind the horrible murders of a Kansas farming family, "Capote" manages to deliver both a compelling tale and an insider's look at how far a good reporter will go to find the real story. Capote went to Kansas as a writer for The New Yorker before he realized he had a story much too big for one article.

Like the movie that was made of Capote's non-fiction novel "In Cold Blood," this flick is more sympathetic to the two killers than to their four victims, who we see only in pictures, dead and alive. But you couldn't have made a movie about Capote any other way. The close relationship he develops with one of the killers, Perry Smith, gets him the story he wants, which is all he cares about in the end.

It's this hard truth that drives "Capote" at its best, and what makes people either love or hate journalists. Me, I like them quite a bit, which is a good thing since I sit among them every day. I never had the drive that Capote did, and many of the reporters I know do, to get at the truth at any cost. It's why I stopped being a reporter, though I still fancy myself a writer from time to time.

Hoffman's Capote works so well because he takes all the writer's faults to heart and plays them straight. It goes from unfailingly funny as he vaingloriously makes himself the center of attention in any room he enters, to painful to watch as he manipulates everyone, from the condemned killers to the circle of friends who cling to his every word.

Capote could never have gotten away with essentially creating a whole new literary genre, the true-crime novel, without a cast of enablers, led here by Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee. Keener is low-key but engaging as she accompanies Hoffman to Kansas and endures his constantly trying to upstage her. Bob Balaban is also great as William Shawn, the editor who let Capote out on an incredibly long leash. Luckily he didn't have Judith Miller on the other end.

And Clifton Collins Jr.'s performance as cold-blooded Perry Smith stands with Jeff Daniels in "The Squid and the Whale" as the two biggest Oscar snubs for this year. Collins manages to make Smith just human enough that you have to struggle to hate him as you watch "Capote," a true accomplishment given the horror of his actions.

Should Hoffman win an Oscar for his performance? To me, he just barely misses out to Terrence Howard, as in a way they play very similar characters. As a struggling Memphis pimp, Howard plays the same kind of mind games Capote did, and he is electric throughout "Hustle and Flow."

Should "Capote" win an Oscar for Best Picture? If I were voting, it wouldn't have been nominated, but of the five that were, it just barely loses out to "Good Night, and Good Luck," George Clooney's portrait of the battle between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy.

I guess, in these hard times for journalists, I'll take the crusading hero over the talented primadonna. My tiny way of scoring one for the good guys.

Bored "New World"

As millions of people were watching Martin Lawrence run across a beach in a fat suit, about 15 or so people in Macon turned out for the 1 p.m. Sunday screening of Terrence Malick's "The New World" at the AmStar. I'm sorry to have to say it, but I'm not sure which audience got the short end of the stick.

Watching Malick's movies can be a truly maddening experience. He is an extremely gifted visual filmmaker. He spends so much time constructing the perfect image, however, that he has little time for small details like plot and character development.

If he cared for such things, he would have had an epic story of love and discovery to tell. Though the story of John Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe is one we all know from elementary school, it is also a juicy love triangle. Or at least, it could be.

What Terrence Malick wants it to be, instead, is a meditation on the impact of man and industry on nature. He would have made a great photographer for National Geographic, and his reconstruction of Jamestown, near the original site in Virginia, is impressive. But here, he's all style and no substance.

At one point Christian Bale's Rolfe says about Pocahontas, or at least thinks in voiceover (it's often hard to tell with Malick): "She sometimes goes hours without saying anything." I couldn't help thinking the same thing, about all the characters in this dud.

There are two high points, all to do with the American Indians. I was talking about this earlier with Telegraph photographer Grant Blankenship, and he said he was looking forward to a rare movie where the Indians are treated as more than savages. Well, in short bites, Malick delivered that much.

As John Smith is at first imprisoned and later, after Pocahontas' intervention, welcomed by the Algonquin tribe, we get a look at their everyday lives that is refreshing in its simplicity.

Plus number two is newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. Not only is she an incredibly beautiful woman, but she can express a wide range of emotions without saying a word, a very necessary skill when working with Malick. She easily overshadows Colin Farrell's John Smith in every scene they share. Farrell goes through the whole show with a dazed, almost vacant look, one I shared as Malick panned across the Virginia wetlands slowly for the 27th time.

Kilcher, however, is definitely one to watch. I can't wait to see what she can do for a director who cares about the actors as much as the scenery.

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