This worthy second biopic of Truman Capote starts not with a bloodbath, but a cocktail. To the deceptively frail social harridan Capote (played well by Toby Jones), a scandal is a scandal, making his upcoming sojourn to the site of a Kansas massacre the equal of, say, a gleeful bit of between-the-sheets gossip: both offer his next dinner date that memorable moment of mock piety. (And there are many dinner engagements as Jones’ Capote constantly swills beluga and high class whiskey to feed both his stomach and his ego.)
Douglas McGrath’s fine film covers the same timeline as last year’s heralded Capote, but he’s taken a page from the writer’s manifesto to “never judge [his] characters.” Only, unlike Capote, McGrath means it. Humanistic rather than accusatory, his biography frames Capote’s manipulations of everyone from nightclub singers to prisoners as the result of too much fascination with the world—a vow of passion that lent itself to making more sensationalism up, if need be. The world, in turn, is snakecharmed by him, and so the deliberate misfit’s road toward literary infamy looks increasingly like an ourobouros, with the Sheriff and killers sucking him dry for Humphrey Bogart details just as he drains them of the truth. And through it all plods Sandra Bullock’s Harper Lee, flat-footedly sighing over that follow-up book she needs to write (are we to blame Truman?) and contrasting her simplicity against the steamer trunk, four suitcases, and a menagerie of furs he drags along to the flatlands. The emphasis here is on Capote’s conscience, not his deception; when he changes his tone toward felon Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) from cellblock sympathy to cocktail cattiness, Jones’ performance suggests that Capote wasn’t a hypocrite, but a man afraid to plumb his emotional depths. Yet, just as Capote’s nonfiction classic gave both his villains and his victims resonance, McGrath sees fit to show compassion for the writer himself—a man who, as Gore Vidal quipped, “looked like a brussel sprout,” but suffered just like everyone else.