In my recent review of THE IRON LADY, I discussed the difficulty of translating someone’s life into a neat three-act narrative. Its been both successfully and not so successfully done many times. When it has been successfully pulled off, usually the story avoids telling the entire life story of the person. Instead, it focuses in on a particular time period, a notable one usually, as the story’s anchor. CAPOTE is a great example of this and it is one reason why it stands as one of the best biopics in the last 20 years.

CAPOTE is about Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), one of the most famous (or infamous as goes the title to another movie about the author) American writers of the 20th Century. Capote fits the stereotypical image of the American novelist. He was based in New York City, hobnobbed with NYC intellectuals, artists, and writers, drank a lot, succumbed to severe bouts of depression, and wrote the great American novel with In Cold Blood. Even how Capote discovered the idea for his book is reminiscent of stories you hear from famous writers when they describe the epiphany they got for a story while sitting on the toilet. Capote got his idea from a newspaper article he read one morning. The article described a grisly murder in the middle of nowhere in Kansas where a family of four was brutally murdered by two men (Clifton Collins Jr. and Mark Pellegrino). Capote was intrigued by the story enough so that he booked a train ride to Kansas to dig deeper into what happened. Accompanying him was another famous author, Lee Harper (Catherine Keener), who wrote the high school staple (and one of my all-time favorite novels), To Kill a Mockingbird. After interviewing the townspeople, including the investigating sheriff (Chris Cooper), and the killers, Capote decides to write a book about it. The book, In Cold Blood, becomes Capote’s most famous work and the last book he ever writes.

Notwithstanding Truman Capote’s fascinating life, personality, and the journey he took to write In Cold Blood, all of which make for a great subject for a film, CAPOTE has the overriding appeal of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance. With this film, Hoffman undoubtedly proves himself to be one of the greatest actors working today. He completely throws himself into playing the openly gay Southern writer and if you compare interview footage of Truman Capote with Hoffman’s portrayal, its uncanny how closely Hoffman comes to looking and sounding like Capote. And rather than simply aping the author, Hoffman presents a deeply complex character who you admire and despise. Capote easily wins over everyone he encounters, including unlikely admirers such as Chris Cooper’s character. The author’s friendship with the two killers, especially with Clifton Collins Jr., is sincere and he connects with their outcast status. He even gets them a lawyer to appeal their case. At the same time, however, Capote’s ultimate interest in the plight of the two men is to get enough material out of them to finish his book. After a while, he ignores their repeated attempts to obtain his help to appeal their case. Truman Capote was a complicated man and it is that, as much as his books, that made him so interesting. Philip Seymour Hoffman bravely took him on and he succeeds in spades.

The success of CAPOTE is also helped by its gorgeous art direction and cinematography. So much of its look reminded me of painter Edward Hopper’s work, especially in the scenes set in Kansas. The film is set during the 1950s, the same time period Hopper’s paintings were done, and the Kansas town near where the murder occurred appears desolate and cold. These scenes stand in stark contrast to the glitzy Manhattan social scene that Truman Capote is so accustomed to. There, Manhattan is portrayed as a crowded, smoky, and colorful world that never sleeps. CAPOTE is a beautifully rendered film and any photography/cinematography student should take close note of the work here because there is a lot to be admired.

The biggest surprise in CAPOTE is the strong performance given by Clifton Collins Jr. Prior to seeing this film, I only remember seeing Collins Jr. in STAR TREK and in Mike Judge’s EXTRACT. I considered the actor a small-timer until I saw him here playing one of the two killers. As the killer, Collins Jr. has an intensity that mixes with a level of intelligence and gentleness that no one would expect from a cold-blooded killer like him. For being an advocate of the death penalty, watching this performance from Collins Jr. made me sympathize with him despite the heinous nature of his crime. Many films have come out in the past that attempt to paint a sympathetic picture of a murderer. None have succeeded quite like CAPOTE to break through an audience’s attitude toward something like murder and make you feel for and understand the criminal’s point of view.

If there is anything to criticize about CAPOTE, it would be that I wish more time was spent exploring the author’s relationship with Harper Lee. Catherine Keener isn’t given much to work with here, which is unfortunate considering how famous of a writer she was. Even more fascinating is the fact that Lee never married and given Capote’s homosexuality and her lifelong single status, the two writers were two outcasts living in a restrained and conservative decade in the U.S. Add to all this Capote’s partner (Bruce Greenwood), another writer who never achieve the same success as Capote or Lee and a friendly competitive triangle existed that could have served as its own film.

CAPOTE, in my opinion, was the best film to be released in 2005. In a year that saw other, almost equally compelling films like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, MUNICH, and CINDERELLA MAN, it’s a shocking shame that CRASH ended up being the film that got the big prize that year.