This movie went well beyond Capote’s own personal eccentricities, speaking instead to the destructive impact modern, tabloid-style journalism would ultimately have on the soul of the man who created it. I won’t go into a discussion here about Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote himself. Let’s just say it was phenomenal. But what I do want to talk about is the lesson the movie teaches us about the trap for the unwary. The soul-wrenching trip into the Inferno that a man who feels – who ultimately cares, despite himself -- must take when he ventures into the world of the bleak.
The movie could almost have been titled The Making of In Cold Blood. It skips over Capote’s early career, although Breakfast at Tiffany’s does get mentioned, and introduces Capote as a flighty, New York socialite interested mostly in witty cocktail party banter. The film shifts abruptly, however, when Capote learns of the Clutter killings in Kansas. From that point on, the film focuses almost exclusively on the process Capote followed in pursuit of his masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
And what was that process? Well, Capote first makes his way to Kansas with Harper Lee, the soon-to-be author of To Kill a Mockingbird, in search of a story. He uses Lee, who appears much more normal, much less flamboyant, to shield himself from the suspicious eyes of the townsfolk who have lived through the murders. Capote then uses his status as an author to curry favor with the detective’s wife, thereby gaining access to inside information about the investigation. Once the killers are captured, Capote flirts unabashedly with the sheriff’s wife to gain access to Perry Smith, the "sensitive" one of the two killers.
Capote continues to prostitute himself with Perry, mercilessly using any hook he can find to work his way into Perry’s confidence. He lets the sheriff’s wife give Perry his first novel to read. He brings Perry aspirin for the pain in his legs. He tells Perry about how his (Capote’s) mother abandoned him, just like Perry’s own mother abandoned him. All of this in pursuit of the story, the “novel of the decade,” as Capote tells his publisher at the New Yorker.
And Capote is ultimately successful. He gets the story. But when push comes to shove, and it comes down to the time to see the killers actually die, Capote shrinks from the task. He can’t do it. It’s as though in his unbridled ambition to get the story, he forgot what it would feel like to watch someone he befriended die. His conscience is further battered by Perry’s chilling eleventh-hour confession to Capote in a dingy jail cell.
So Capote hides. And who is there to make him see what he has done? Harper Lee, the “manly” woman, who went on to write one of the greatest American novels, is there to tell Capote that deep down, he knew what he was doing. Deep down, he wanted these men to die. So he could get the story.
And this is what breaks Capote in the end. He has used sentiment, feelings, emotions, and friendship to get the story that he wanted, only to find out at the end that he is being crucified on the cross of those very same emotions as he watches Perry Smith hanging in the gallows. Capote succeeded in creating tabloid journalism. He was one of the few authors with enough feeling and depth to really bring it off. But in the end, it was that same feeling and depth that wouldn’t let him look away from what he had done. Wouldn’t let him shrug it off as just another story.
And it’s what ultimately killed him.