Capote co-stars Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Two new films – George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck and Bennett Miller’s Capote – continue Hollywood’s rich tradition of getting the scoop on great journalists and the stories they reported.
There is another Capote film due next year, and in the works are two films about slain journalist Daniel Pearl. Why is Hollywood so fascinated with journalists, those hard working grunts of the fourth estate?
Well, for one thing, movie audiences for decades ( from the 20’s, say, right up until the Vietnam War) regarded journalists as swaggering adventurers, intrepid correspondents covering world wars, gangland murders, world politics – all the news that was fit to print. Hollywood, picking up on America’s fondness and admiration for journalists, cranked out films about the press -- Foreign Correspondent, Deadline USA, Call Northside 777, Jack Webb’s -30-, The Front Page and His Girl Friday, among others.
These films portrayed reporters as either whip-smart hustlers, as quick on their feet as they were with a quip, or as crusaders for truth and justice who would do whatever it took to get to the bottom of a story. These early Hollywood journalists were romanticized as dashing figures, world travelers with moxie to spare, always ready to barrel over anyone that stood in their way.
That tradition carried on, albeit in a far more sober-minded fashion, into All The President’s Men (1976), Alan J. Pakula’s film treatment of the story of the century, when Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) took down President Nixon and became folk heroes in their own right. This film did more for real-life journalism than any other Hollywood film, inspiring thousands to attend journalism school and follow in “WoodStein”’s footsteps.
But that was then, and America’s relationship with the press has now turned considerably more sour, cynical and ambivalent, with the last few decades producing more challenging views of the press like Absence of Malice, Salvador, The Mean Season and True Crime. In the wake of the scandals of the past few years involving rising journalism stars who were busted for their fraudulent stories (as was the case with scribe Stephen Glass, subject of the devastating Shattered Glass with Hayden Christensen), Hollywood is beginning to cast an even more jaundiced eye on reporters and reporting.
Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck approach journalism in a more critical light, as they examine that delicate balance between news gathering and exploitation that has dogged the media ever since Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled for readers at the height of the “yellow journalism” era of the early 20th century.
Good Night, and Good Luck - which was directed and co-written by Clooney, who also plays TV producer Fred Friendly - transports audiences back to a contentious period in American politics when, as portrayed in the movie, a junior congressman from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy wrecked havoc on the nation in the fifties with his “witch hunt” for Communist infiltrators.
McCarthy’s reign of terror cowed many news outlets into submission, but one journalist was willing to risk his livelihood to stand up to McCarthy – Edward R. Murrow, the legendary reporter for CBS news from 1935 to 1960. In Clooney’s film, McCarthy uses TV as his most powerful propaganda tool, broadcasting his House Un-American Activities hearings into millions of American living rooms. (Clooney employs real newsreel footage to heighten the realism of his film.)
In Good Night…, Murrow (David Strathairn) is torn between being a crusader for justice by exposing McCarthy and submitting to the market forces of television, which avoids controversy like the plague and kowtows to advertisers. CBS doesn’t want to touch McCarthy; it’s too controversial. Murrow presses on, however, despite vocal protestations from the owner of the network, William Paley (Frank Langella)
It’s not hard to draw parallels between Murrow’s quandary and the contemporary state of TV journalism, in which entertainment passes as news, big stories are compromised by corporate conflicts of interest, and self-censorship is a regular occurrence. Keep in mind that Murrow, as Clooney’s film astutely points out, was also a pioneer of entertainment news with his See It Now program. Thus, even the great mandarin of hard-nosed television news succumbed to the demand for soft-sell celebrity gossip, a trend that has ballooned into a massive industry in 2005.
Capote addresses another pernicious trend affecting contemporary American journalism: the predatory nature of sensational news gathering. This film argues that it may have all started in 1959, when novelist Truman Capote read about a small-town murder in The New York Times, and went down to Holcomb, Kansas on The New Yorker’s dime to investigate. As Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) probes the murder of four members of the Clutter family for what he would call the first “non-fiction novel,” he gets close to the two alleged killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), and this is where things get awfully sticky.
Capote befriends the two murderers, especially the more articulate Perry -- shares confidences with him, gives him books to read -- which raises the big ethical question: is Capote a reporter or an exploiter? Is he using Perry for his own ends, providing aid and comfort to a murderer just so the writer can finish his book and garner literary fame and fortune? (When In Cold Blood was published in 1965, it set records for paperback and movie sale fees). Capote gets in so deep, in fact, that he becomes a part of the story itself.
This film raises thorny issues about the role of a reporter in a story: how involved, indeed, is too involved, and how far should the media go to sell ads, newspapers, magazines, etc? It’s an issue that doesn’t get broached often enough in our ugly news climate, when serial killers get prime time TV exposure, and Scott Peterson’s girlfriend tells all and sells millions of books. We’re fortunate to have to two films in current release that are brave enough to ask the hard questions, and make us think about the complex and often compromised role journalism plays in our lives.
Marc Weingarten’s new book, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution, will be published by Crown in November.
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