What’s the difference between honesty and spin?

When I was growing up, before TV came to our neck of the Alabama swamps, we had to imagine what the real world over the next hill might look like. We’d sit around the radio, envisioning the things we couldn’t see—wars, baseball games, Burns and Allen, or Baby Snooks.

When TV finally came, in the early ’50s, the world it brought into our living rooms was black and white, and dumbed way down. It hardly mattered—we’d watch anything, even test patterns, for hours. Anything was more interesting than Alabama in the ’50s. Broadcasting only a few hours a day, TV gave us Hopalong Cassidy and Captain Video, relentless baseball games and wrestling matches, Lucy and Uncle Milty. And, of course, the news. TV news no longer came from disembodied voices, but from talking heads. Newsmen now had faces, and, as eyewitnesses, we could now determine who had an honest face and who didn’t.

The most honest of the talking heads seemed to be the revered war correspondent Edward R. Murrow. He had a deeply trenched face and a nicotine-stained voice that seemed to arise from the depths of the world’s wisdom. He sat calmly and spoke authoritarian truths through the haze.

The moment when TV ceased to be a silly toy and became the news itself was in 1954, when the audience watching at home became referees in a great debate over what was true, what was a lie, and whose view of the world we could trust. At that time, as the Cold War heated up, Joe McCarthy, a paranoid or merely unscrupulously ambitious senator, tried to stir the populace into a froth of fear over an imminent takeover led by hundreds of communist spies, whose names he claimed were inscribed on a piece of paper he’d wave at the TV cameras. Half of us were quaking in our boots over the imagined commies; the other half were terrified of the all-too-real McCarthy, who had the scary habit of declaring that anyone who disagreed with his hysterical demagoguery was, perforce, a communist sympathizer.

Murrow and his cohorts at CBS refused to bow to McCarthy. Murrow invited him to debate on TV and exposed him as a rabble-rousing showboat who, as the highly honorable Joseph Welch, special counsel for the Army, put it, had “no decency.” With Murrow’s inspiration, the Senate held hearings on McCarthy’s antics. They censured the man and drove him into shamed retreat.

Now the actor George Clooney has put together a reenactment of the public clash between Murrow and the rabid senator. It’s called Good Night and Good Luck. The hyperrealistic film is set in CBS television headquarters and studios, and shot in high-contrast black and white through air filled with cigarette smoke. It intercuts archival footage of McCarthy, sweating, raving, and ranting, with David Straithairn’s Murrow, smoking calmly and cutting through the tirade with sepulchral voice and deep-set eyes.

Straithairn looks like a cross between Jason Robards and Abraham Lincoln, and sounds like the voice of God. Frank Langella plays William Paley, the founder and head of CBS, who’ll have to bear the financial consequences if Murrow goes too far in offending McCarthy’s loyal paranoids. He alternately tries to shield and rein in his iron-willed star. On the soundtrack, amidst the tension of the approaching duel between Murrow and McCarthy, the creamy-voiced Dianne Reeves sings jazz.

Clooney’s film convincingly captures the look, sound, and feel of the early days of television, when this compelling and intrusive device brought the world into our livings rooms, dominating our picture of reality. It turned out that those who assaulted us, like McCarthy, didn’t go over well on the intimate new medium. We preferred cool voices of reason, like Murrow, who dared to defend polite debate and proclaimed that “Dissension is not disloyalty.”

Good Night isn’t a biography of Murrow, but a reminder of the power of the people who come into our homes and tell us what’s going on in the world out there. On See It Now, Murrow had gone to every corner of earth to report the news on location and firsthand. By the time he took on powerful politicians, we trusted him, maybe because he’d convinced us of his basic decency. Murrow wasn’t neutral toward McCarthy. And he didn’t attempt to silence him, but to prevent him from silencing everyone else. Murrow would fight with Paley as much as with McCarthy, to make sure no voice was silenced—-including, of course, his own. Ever since, our politics has been shaped by the powerful medium that Murrow mastered early on, as we continue to search for voices and faces who’ll tell us the truth.

Those of us who learned to trust black and white may distrust color, or the tinge people put on the things they tell us and show us. The writer in the ’50s who insisted most firmly he was telling the truth was Truman Capote, a self-styled genius and celebrity-seeking writer, who capitalized on the weirdness of his elfin body, the mousy squeakiness of his prepubertal voice, and the infantile beauty of his face. He wrote touching, ersatz memories of his fantasized childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, oiled his way into high society in New York, and became a famously catty purveyor of gossip among the Beautiful People. One of his most revealing creation was Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In 1959, Capote got wind of a murder in Kansas and set out to investigate it as the basis of a “nonfiction novel.” He enlisted his childhood buddy from Monroeville, author Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird won both the Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of the world around that time. The Alabamians set out for Kansas even before the murderers had been found. There Capote befriended the pair of ex-cons who’d killed a family while burglarizing their house. From them, he got detailed descriptions of the crime, but couldn’t finish his book until he could write about the story’s dramatic ending—the killers’ execution by hanging, which was delayed by multiple appeals.

In 1965, Capote finally came out with the semi-journalistic, semi-novelistic In Cold Blood, which doesn’t just focus on the murder of the farm family in Kansas, but examines the soul of one of the psychopathic murderers, Perry Smith, a stunted, part-Cherokee ex-con who’d been brutalized by his father, jerked out of school in the third grade, and turned loose on the world as a semiliterate, intellectually ambitious drifter.

In Cold Blood was an astounding success, and quickly, in the hands of Richard Brooks, became a great psychonoirish crime film. It tells the story of the murders, the town, and the murderers, but it leaves Capote out. Robert Blake played the perennial outsider Perry, who didn’t understand that his partner, the charming chiseler Dick Hickock, talked tough about leaving no witnesses to a burglary, but that it was just talk.

The new film, Capote, written by Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller, tells the story of the Kansas murderers from Capote’s (tinted) perspective. The film is fittingly hyperrealistic. The photography, in Manitoba, which outflats Kansas, is grim and stark. The townspeople seem far more interested in the visiting celebrities than in murderers.

Capote is brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who can transcend his physical ordinariness to do anything, from the suspicious rich kid in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the transsexual speech therapist in Flawless. Here he doesn’t just capture Capote’s fey gestures, he makes his body tiny, his face cherubic, his voice a chirpily drawling falsetto. He’s indeed a mockingbird.

Catherine Keener, most notable as the depressive sexpot in Being John Malkovich, is the sparrowish Harper Lee, selfless, loyal, and calmly critical of Truman’s intrusive narcissism. She’s the earthling that keeps this space alien from being too weird for the plain folk of Kansas.

While Truman falls in love with his alterego Perry Smith, Lee notes his impatience with the appeal process, which keeps the murderers from hanging and means he can’t finish his book and win the world’s acclaim. She sees that Truman’s enfant terrible posture disguises a murderous soul. When Lee isn’t there, like Jiminy Cricket on Truman’s shoulder, his coterie of cheerleaders and the glitterati of New York provoke and release his sadistic bitchiness.

Capote is the flip side of In Cold Blood. In it, we see the degree to which Capote lied and seduced the killers he “befriended.” By the end, Truman’s boyish innocence has faded, and we see him as a treacherously ambitious man, while we see Perry as an innocent, honest (albeit murderous) child. The film captures his tragic violence with an unforgettable line: “I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice man. I thought that right up until I cut his throat.” The boyish Perry’s main concern, as he goes to the gallows isn’t his life or the lives of the Clutters, but embarrassment over losing bowel control at the point of death.

Capote became famous for telling the “nonfictional” truth, about his childhood traumas, about the murders in Kansas, and about the secrets of his “friends.” He always gave us facts, if not the facts, at least some facts, while managing to leave out his own influence on the reality he was shaping. The film Capote puts him back in and creates a far more compelling story.

The munchkinesque twitter of Capote’s voice got him attention and made him unforgettable, but cost him friends every time he opened his mouth and barfed gossip. Maybe Capote’s self-destruction is rooted in his furious need to say or be anything that would enable him always to stand apart, while still being the center of attention. His life may have all been fiction (some say even his voice was put on). But this great new movie is about more than this one insecure man. It probes deeply into the nature of truth, revealing how truth is always tinted, always subjective. At the end, we’re left with only one certainty: the pretense of total honesty and nonfictional objectivity is always a lie.


Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.