Capote - Ruthless pursuit of a dream: Review
Bennett Miller bases his film, “Capote” (released in Madras/Chennai in May 2006) largely on Gerald Clarke’s biography of writer Truman Capote. A childhood friend and contemporary of an author most of us have read, Nelle Harper Lee, Capote got interested in a dreadful murder of a rich Kansas farming family in 1959 through a newspaper report. But Capote’s involvement with the heinous crime grew deeper when he began meeting and interviewing one of the two killers, Perry Smith. Capote initially planned to write a magazine article, but soon found he had so much of material that he could write a “non-fiction novel”. Capote’s book, perhaps the first of its kind, took nearly seven years to be completed, and between 1959 and 1966, the year of publication, Capote tried to help the convicts escape the gallows. At least in the beginning of the trial.
But towards the close of Miller’s movie, there is one great scene where Capote tells Smith and his accomplice, Dick Hickock, who are just minutes away from death, “I tried my best to help” and breaks down. Later, he tells Lee over the telephone: "There isn't anything I could have done to save them.". "Maybe not," she says rather coldly. "The fact is, you didn't want to." Lee, who had by then become famous with her Pulitzer award winning novel, “To Kill A Mocking Bird”, was merely affirming what others, even some of Capote’s very close friends, had begun to believe. Capote’s mindless pursuit of his ambition – in this case to write the book the way he wanted to – had started souring his relationships.
Miller’s “Capote” largely focuses on this unpleasant aspect of the author’s character: a homosexual in the Kennedy era whose drinking binges and naughty parties were never allowed to come in the way of his discipline and punishing writing schedules that were aimed at self-gratification. We are shown a manipulative Capote, who first befriends Smith, but later stops helping him and Hickock. Capote, it is argued, probably wanted to see them hang so that he could get the ending he wanted for his book.
Clarke says quite clearly in his biography that Capote had a selfish streak in him. He did regret getting the two men a better lawyer, because the case dragged on for five years, and book could not be finished, certainly not before the outcome of the appeals, made by the convicts, was known.
Miller is not so harsh on Capote as Clarke was, and the viewer is left wondering whether Capote could have really saved the two killers from the death penalty. Miller goes beyond Capote’s perceived heartlessness to show us a paradox: the man knew what he was capable of, and his grief at the end was, therefore, genuine. This is the dilemma Miller brings out with admirable style. This is also the legend that is associated with Truman Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Oscar for the Best Actor in 2006.
Hoffman portrays this seeming callousness of Capote brilliantly, complete with his squeaky drawl, his peculiar gestures and the smirk of a smile, which masked the cruel and unethical side of his. Miller mostly relies on close-ups to, and keeps the camera trained on Hoffman to get us perplexed about who the real Capote was. Was he the villain out to control the lives of two men he was writing about? Or, was he really helpless when it came to the crunch? Miller leaves us there, but one does not fail to notice his sympathy for Capote that creeps into some of the scenes.
“Capote” calls for serious viewing, and will hardly appeal to one who may be interested only in seeing the images move; Miller’s cinematic version narrates the Capote story through stimulating conversations and extraordinary wit. It is highly cerebral.
(This review was posted on this website on May 9 2006)