Hijacking History

Moral ambiguity reigns in Capote, Munich and Good Morning, Night

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on,” Janet Malcolm writes in The Journalist and the Murderer, “knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Malcolm is alluding to the manner in which a journalist manipulates the subject of an interview in order to obtain the most compelling story. But every filmmaker who dramatizes a real-life event is also, in the broadest sense, liable to the same charge. Three recent films — Capote, Munich, and Good Morning, Night — offer fascinating insights into the tension between historical reality and the imagination.

Malcolm’s dictum is the implicit starting point of Capote, written by Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller. Capote covers the writing of Truman Capote’s self-styled “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, the story of two young men, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who wiped out the entire Clutter family in the small Kansas town of Holcomb, in November 1959. Early in the picture, Capote arrives in Holcomb to conduct initial interviews with locals such as Laura Kinney, who found the bodies the morning after the murders. Capote’s friend, the novelist Nelle Harper Lee, with a quiet dignity and understated decorousness, makes the initial overtures, but when Capote takes over, his handling of Kinney is impressively — then unsettlingly — deft. He crosses over the vast distance between their backgrounds by confessing to this young woman — so terrified of being misunderstood — the ways in which he too has always feared other people jumping to the wrong conclusions about him. Feeling a surprising sense of kinship with this strange, elegant, big-city writer, she begins to confide in him as if he were an old friend. Capote, clearly, has an uncanny and dangerous talent for creating the illusion of intimacy.

The filmmakers are so even-handed in their treatment of Capote that, as he circles closer and closer to his story and woos Perry, viewers may at first disapprove of how he goes about it, and remain uncertain over what he is really feeling. Capote appears to be emotionally drawn to Perry, perhaps in love with him, while Perry, whose sexuality is mysterious, seems to be smitten with Truman. The movie keeps Capote’s motives at least half hidden for a long time; one wonders if even the writer himself is fully aware of them. That’s why, in the last third of the film, it comes as a shock when Capote coldly staves off Perry’s demands to read the book, claiming that he hasn’t written it yet, and it becomes clear just how much Capote has manipulated Smith from the outset. For not only has Capote written almost the entire book at this point; he’s impatient for, even obsessed with, Smith and Hickock’s execution (which has been delayed by appeals and stays) so that he can write the final chapter. This becomes evident in New York, when, after a mesmerizing reading, a member of the audience pokes his head into the reception to say how affected he was by one particular passage, with its horrifying glimpse into the minds of the killers. Truman is busy dishing gossip with his friends, and his response to the interruption, polite but dismissive, seems so distanced from the emotional quality of the material he’s just read that it feels as if he’s throwing cold water at his haunted fan.

In Cold Blood may have given birth to the non-fiction novel but it remains one of a kind: the intimate story of a bloodletting and its aftermath rendered in the exquisitely sculpted prose of a southern-Gothic salon writer. Miller and Futterman underscore the idea that what Capote’s achievement does to the story of Hickock and Smith and the Clutter killings is to remove it from the actual world and place it in a literary one, symbolized by the bantering, superficial atmosphere of that reception. By marshalling fictional devices like an omniscient point of view, Capote is allowing his imagination to alter his subjects and thus betray the humanity of those who animated his work — not only the victims, but also their neighbours, and especially Smith and Hickock.

Two other recent films, Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Good Morning, Night, by the Italian director Marco Bellocchio, seize Capote’s prerogative as a non-fiction novelist to dramatize historic events. In these movies, however, imagination functions not only as a filmmaker’s device, shaping how we look at the characters’ actions, but also as a theme. Munich begins with the murders of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, but Spielberg dispatches that shocking event quickly; the story he chooses to tell is that of the small band of men sent by Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, to track down and eliminate those responsible.

Good Morning, Night
, on the other hand, is about one of the most infamous events in modern Italian history, the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the head of the Christian Democrats, by the Red Brigades in 1978, just after he had effected a coalition between his party and the Italian Communists. Like the peripheral role played by the Israeli athletes in Munich, Moro is a supporting character here. The Italian politicians — who ignore the letters he wrote, pleading with them to negotiate with his kidnappers (like Black September, the Red Brigades demanded the release of political prisoners) — are merely talking heads on a TV screen. The protagonist is Chiara, the one woman among the four Red Brigades members who keep watch over Moro in a suburban flat for two months before he is finally executed.

In both cases, the filmmakers are concerned with the psychological transformation of characters who begin as unswerving devotees to a cause. Munich’s Avner, whom Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir placed in charge of the assassination squad, continues to be haunted by nightmares of the Munich slaughter, but the nine-month process of ferreting out and cutting down his targets shakes his faith in the efficacy — and the simplicity — of the task, and undermines his belief in the Israeli government. Some of the men they kill aren’t the ones responsible for the abduction and murder of the Israeli athletes; at one point they “take a leave of absence” from their duties to chase down and kill a seductive female mercenary who has murdered one of their own force. Avner undergoes an existential crisis and comes to the conclusion that the mission they’re pursuing is part of a larger, ceaseless one, in which every act of violence is a compensation for some previous one.

In Good Morning, Night, Chiara, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of World War II Italian Resistance fighters, starts to see Moro in human rather than political terms. Her metamorphosis is doubly ironic: not only have her cohorts reduced Moro to a political symbol, but even his colleagues choose to read the letters he writes from captivity, not as a reasoned and heartfelt argument for negotiating with his kidnappers, but as evidence that his incarceration has so altered him psychologically that he is no longer the same person. Eventually, the Red Brigades subject him to a simulated trial, pronouncing him guilty of crimes against the proletariat.

It is easy to see why Munich has drawn severe criticism from editorial writers such as David Brooks of the New York Times, who object to its taking a contemporary peacenik approach to a three-and-a-half-decade-old series of events, a militant response triggered by moral outrage to an unjustifiable tragedy. However, Spielberg doesn’t attempt to mediate the horror of the Munich killings, which hovers over the film just as it hovers over Avner’s nights. What he wants to do is to move outward from them to an interrogation of the kind of policy that deals out secret death sentences rather than public accountings. Avner, arguing with his handler, brings up the counter-example of Adolf Eichmann, who was tried and eventually executed in Israel. On the other hand, Spielberg also wants a psychological study of what happens to assassins driven by an ideology when they’ve finally seen too much bloodshed. Whatever one’s objections to the philosophical musings of the script (by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth), Spielberg’s gifts for staging, image-making, and editing, as well as his sensitivity in working with actors, permit us to see the mission from the point of view of the men who begin as heroic warriors but are transformed, and traumatized, by their experience. Rather than being an example of irresponsible, revisionist history, Munich does what traditional history cannot—it personalizes the actors in historical events and gives them a complicated, ambivalent humanity. In fact, it’s those gifts that make Spielberg a spectacularly effective maker of large-scale melodramas, a talent that his detractors blast him for whenever he tackles modern history, as he did in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. But he’s very canny in Munich — cannier than he was in Saving Private Ryan, which, despite its graphic nature, ultimately romanticized war. Here he remains aware of his role as a popular interpreter, a dramatizer, and uses his resources as a filmmaker to convert a series of historic events into a gripping spy adventure, only to turn the genre on itself. The conventions of the genre in which he’s cast this story reveal the narrowness of the thinking that sent Avner and his colleagues on their mission.

Bellocchio is a far more contemplative director than Spielberg, but the parallels between the two pictures are striking. Like Avner, Chiara has vivid dreams, though hers are filled with images of the Russian Revolution and the Italian Resistance fighters. They’re the source of her political strength, but as the days and weeks wear on they provide less and less sustenance, and she begins to bring the perception of others outside the flat into it, to look at Moro through eyes other than those of her comrades. Chiara has a low-level government job and so, unlike her colleagues, she’s permitted to spend her days in the world in order to serve as the group’s eyes and ears at the ministry. Listening to co-workers and strangers at caf_s discussing the news, and then returning to the flat to watch Moro day after day, she ultimately finds it impossible to deny his humanity. At the end, what she dreams of is his escape, engineered by her. In the case of both Chiara and Avner, the imagination and all it implies — the capacity to empathize and to perceive events in a broader perspective — is precisely that irreducibly subjective element that political ideology can never dominate.

Like Spielberg, Bellocchio is driven by the idea that the reality of violence — ongoing in Munich, impending in Good Morning, Night — can sometimes remove even the most fervent partisan to a sphere beyond ideologies. The most curious element in Bellocchio’s film is its subplot. Chiara’s co-worker, Enzo, has written a screenplay called Good Morning, Night, whose narrative imagines a kidnapping much like the one the Red Brigades have set in motion. Chiara reads it and rejects it as a political critique because, she insists, “imagination never saved anyone.” But even as she argues with Enzo, we can see that empathy is operating on her, forcing her to rethink her old assumptions about the rectitude of violent political action. When Mariano, the leader of their small Red Brigades cell, announces that they have elected to execute their prisoner, she protests. “There are no limits in a revolution. Everything is allowed,” is Mariano’s answer, but his words sound hollow. They’re straw revolutionaries, only engaging to us when Mariano talks about his son, whom he’s forced himself to abandon, or when another of the group, Ernesto, longs for his girlfriend — the parts of their lives they’re supposed to be sacrificing to the cause. And the government ministers we see on the news aren’t living, breathing figures but stick men echoing policies that are in no way motivated by compassion or even loyalty. Among the partisans on either side, only Chiara, whose transformation is the turning point on which the movie rests, is fully alive. She alone is capable of acts of compassionate imagination, and that is her moral salvation. Imagination saves Avner, too, after nearly destroying him first; it saves him in the same way it saved Chiara, by returning him to his humanity.

The kind of imagination Capote critiques works in the opposite way. It imposes a distance between the truth of its subject and the manner in which a literary mind manipulates truth toward a literary end. Spielberg risks being accused of playing fast and loose with history by creating a character who quarrels with it. But Spielberg’s aim is to make us see — as Enzo’s screenplay helps make Chiara see — what our political blinders may have filtered out. Capote isn’t interested in the moral lives of Smith and Hickock, but in the lurid story of the murders they commit, however much his skillfulness as a stylist couches that fascination. He doesn’t choose to examine, as Spielberg and Bellocchio do, how violence can transform those who enact it. And he doesn’t appear to be morally aware, as they clearly are, of the precariousness of his own role as an imaginative chronicler of history — at least until the end of the picture, when he returns to Kansas to renew his friendship with Perry and watch (at Perry’s request) the execution of the two murderers. Smith’s gratitude for Capote’s presence appears to telescope the chilling distance he’s maintained from the young men’s fate, and to shake him to his core; their final hour leaves him in an almost paralyzed state — and a postscript reminds us that he never completed another book after In Cold Blood. He resides in deeper, more mysterious waters than Avner, but it’s clear that Capote also comes face to face with the implications of his actions. Avner acquires the depth of thought to throw those actions into doubt; in Capote’s case, the final unavoidable reality of Hickock and Smith brings him, perhaps, to view his own imagination with horror.

Steve Vineberg