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Capote/Good Night, and Good Luck / North Country
The bio-pic is a favorite genre of those looking for Oscar glory. Especially actors, who relish the chance to embody, or at least imitate, a real person. Think of Jamie Foxx in Ray, Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, or Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. Oscar season must be upon us, as three new bio-pics opened this past Friday. Of the three, North Country and Capote are more likely to generate awards buzz for their lead actors, but the best of the lot is the quietly powerful Good Night, and Good Luck.
What's interesting (and helpful) about these three is that they focus on a particular event in the subject's life, unlike so many bio-pics that foolishly try to pack 40 years of someone's life into two hours of screen time. North Country is a portrait of the first woman to win a major sexual harassment case. It may not technically be a bio-pic, in that the main character of Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron) is a fictionalized composite of several women. So let's call it an event-pic. Still, it feels like a standard biography, including the requisite flashbacks, as we see Josey flee her abusive husband for her stoic mother and uncaring father. She's able to get a job at the local iron mine, but there she's subject to the constant ridicule and sexual advances of the almost entirely male workforce. And when she complains, the higher-ups give her the option of shutting up or being fired. After one groping too many, she quits and hires a lawyer played by Woody Harrelson. The first two thirds of the movie is compelling if predictable. Compelling because both Theron's performance and Josey's personal life are interesting, especially her friendships with the other female workers. But the courtroom finale is hokey and manipulative (so is the rest of the movie, by the way, but I didn't mind so much for a while). We even have a moment right out of A Few Good Men. I half expected someone to start barking, "You can't handle the truth!"
Capote is a better movie (Bennett Miller has a graceful dignity with his direction) with an even better lead performance. As my friend Garth quipped, we might as well just give the Oscar now to Philip Seymour Hoffman and save everyone else the trouble. His turn as Truman Capote is fascinating to watch. Not only does he nail Truman's speaking style, but he captures the essence of the man. The film focuses on the 2-3 years in which Truman Capote was writing his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. And this is part of the problem for me. I like In Cold Blood so much that I found the movie frustrating. Rather than explore the impact that the book had--from basically inventing the non-fiction novel, to changing the way newspapers and magazines thought about reporting, to today's dominance of crime dramas and "reality" tv--_Capote_ is a by-the-numbers portrayal of the artist's lot in life, complete with triumphs (a standing ovation!), disappointments (people like Harper Lee better than me!), and emotional breakdowns (more booze!). Those who haven't read the book might find this enjoyable despite its banality, and everyone will appreciate Hoffman's brilliant turn, but trust me when I say the book is better.
No, if you're going to see only one bio-pic this season, make sure it's Good Night, and Good Luck. It probably won't win any Oscar nominations, at least not for its actors, but it's a finely wrought piece of work. David Strathairn stars as the famous radio/tv journalist Edward R. Murrow. But rather than cover his entire life or even the more famous London years, the film focuses exclusively on his confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy in 1953-4. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, Good Night evokes the feel of what it was like to be involved in the early days of television: the live shows, the 1950s subtext, the feeling that you were in uncharted waters and almost making it up as you went along. You could create prime-time, hard-hitting journalism and turn right around and do soft interviews with celebrities of questionable importance. The latter is represented by a hilarious interview Murrow did with Liberace ("So, have you given any thought to getting married?"), but the focus is on Murrow and Fred Friendly's ground-breaking show "See It Now."
George Clooney, who not only directs and stars as Friendly, also co-wrote the script with actor Grant Heslov, and they make the brilliant decision to let Murrow's words stand on their own. So many scenes are just Strathairn, who's always had a quiet intensity about him, reciting segments of "See It Now." But Clooney and Heslov have chosen monologues that resonate far beyond 1953. We hear Murrow decry the fear-mongering of McCarthy and the consequent curtailing of civil liberties. We see Murrow question the falseness of men who are hiding behind patriotism and piety in order to ruin the lives of people who disagree with them. And we hear Murrow denounce those who would use the pretext of Communism to grab and exercise power in un-Constitutional ways. It's clear that Clooney wants to rebuke both the current Bush administration as well as the largely docile press. But he doesn't let the audience off the hook, either. The movie opens and closes with segments of a speech Murrow made in 1958 in which he foretold the power of television to lead its viewers to escapism and to insulate them from the realities of life. He warns his audience to be on their guard. What would he think of us today?
Good Night, and Good Luck is a film that resonates so strongly that it's difficult to judge in its own time. I have little doubt that North Country and Capote will receive their Oscar praise and then quickly slip into the video store aisle with other unimportant works that leave nary a mark. But we might not know the full impact or quality of Clooney's film for several years. I do know, though, that it is staggeringly relevant and one of the most important films of the year.
J. Robert Parks