Films about the past shine light on the present

The lasting and compelling theme of “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a search for truth.

The media are on our minds in ways they haven’t been for years, from the halls of Congress to the seats of the neighborhood movie theater.

In political circles, the imprisonment of reporter Judith Miller and the indictment of I. Lewis Libby have become the discussion of the day, resurrecting the debate over anonymous sources and the relationship, both spoken and unspoken, between the government and the press. President George W. Bush accepted the withdrawal of his Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers, in part because of the media’s demand for what he deemed privileged documents. On the major news networks, the impassioned coverage of a submerged New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina revived a sense of moral outrage in a press corps that witnessed an unprepared, disengaged and misinformed federal government. Over the past month, the media have come to dominate the nation’s movie screens. Released only weeks apart, and now both showing in Uptown, a pair of new films resurrect distinct media personalities, two icons that made their mark on an industry long before the over-saturated and often-politicized landscape of today’s 24-hour cable news.

On one end of the spectrum is reporter Truman Capote, whose multiyear commitment to write and research his acclaimed novel “In Cold Blood” is depicted in “Capote” as a mission of questionable ethics, an obsession that leads the writer into despair. In the film, his book may go on to make history but Capote himself is haunted by what he did and did not do for the two convicted murderers, his sources and later his friends, before their execution. He remains torn, between acting honorably and achieving fame. The other prominent personality is Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a recreation of the famed broadcaster’s fight against the demagoguery of Wisconsin’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Murrow wielding his considerable fame against a senator.

These are hardly the stereotypical journalism stories of newsroom antics and infallible, tough-talking heroes. These are films of conscience that question the larger mode and meaning of the press. “Capote” considers what lines a journalist can cross to get the good story, and what toll does a reporter’s relationship with his subject take on both involved. “Good Night, and Good Luck” considers the media’s value in having an opinion and taking a stand against injustice.

The most interesting discussion generated by these films, however, lies at a deeper level. Capote, despite the ethical implications of how he came to draft his novel, was a writer to be trusted and followed. He fought for the good story and told it in compelling fashion. Similarly, Murrow was a man of unquestioned integrity, who could be turned to each week for both the lighter celebrity stories and the deeper social exposés involving poverty, war and McCarthy. Their accomplishments seem even more remarkable given today’s media of left-and-right, he-said-she-said, in which a wide array of opinions and conjecture leads to a polarized and politicized divergence of the truth. Today, one story can be reported a dozen different ways, and there are hundreds of news outlets that cater to the biases and expectations of their audience.

The lasting and compelling theme of these films is the search for a deeper truth. Capote and Murrow sought it, chased it and made their mark. And that is a concept that seems somewhat foreign by today’s standards. Who would stand as today’s Edward R. Murrow or Truman Capote? Whose commentary today would be trusted as fact and hold sway over public opinion?

In this way, perhaps these films say more about the culture that made them than the culture they seek to re-create. Looking deeper, they are not one-note tributes to these powerful media personalities and controversies of the past, but also subtle celebrations of a news world that was more aggressive, scrupulous and influential. They evoke yearnings for a time when there was a common place to turn for a clear, objective and decisive presentation of the facts. They paint today’s polarized environment as a wasted opportunity, the important conversations drowned out by partisanship and puff.

If cinema is indeed a reflection of its society, a monitor of the tastes and opinions of its consumers, then “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” are not just powerful films but informative social documents. They reflect our uneasiness with a media that has at times appeared to have lost its vitality, objectivity and accuracy. They project our desire for someone to once again stand up, take charge and help us make sense out of this crazy world. They dazzle us with the potential of what an aggressive media can achieve, and depress us with the realization that now, more often than not, that potential is being squandered.

Steven Snyder is a University alumnus and former Minnesota Daily employee. He is now a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Please send comments to [email protected].