Reporters swear they are disinterested, detached, impartial, fair. And this much is true: The best try to be fair. But being fair is not being objective. Objective journalists have no feelings about their subjects, no opinions on the outcome. Fair journalists merely keep those emotions to themselves — and let those who disagree have equal time.

The fight between fact and feeling, deadline and duty is one made for the movies. It’s served everything from screwball comedies (Nothing Sacred, It Happened One Night) to social-justice dramas (Meet John Doe, Salvador). But to use it, you have to see the moral dilemma.

Based on the true-fact best-seller by John Berendt, Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a character study disguised as a mystery. John Cusack’s fresh-faced John Kelso (who stands in for Berendt) goes to Savannah to cover an elegant party; he stays on when host Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) puts several bullets into a rough-trade friend. Having expected a 500-word ”literary postcard,” Kelso now sees a best-seller. Getting out his note pad, he gets to work. But who is he working for? The movie’s first big scene sends Kelso to Williams’ lawyer, where he refuses to ”compromise my ethics” by giving Williams’ story approval. ”It’s a slippery slope,” Kelso smugly tells the attorney. ”As a professional, I’m sure you understand.” Kelso, however, proves he doesn’t understand. He lets Williams put him up and loan him clothes; when Williams’ lawyers suggest he join the team as a sort of investigator, Kelso sees no conflict at all.

Neither, sadly, does Eastwood. Even after Kelso uncovers truths the court will never hear, the movie lets him slip down this ethical slope without comment. (Nor, probably, does Berendt, who has acknowledged amending some of his book’s facts.) But movies once turned on such questions. Entire dramas were once born of such quandaries.

Even shabby thrillers once knew the moral territory being mapped. Jerry Schatzberg’s 1987 Street Smart is dressed up with an astonishing performance by Morgan Freeman and some brassy bursts from Miles Davis on the soundtrack. Look past those (and the murkiness of the film-to-tape transfer) and you can see a mere melodrama about an under-the-gun journalist who invents an interview — and then finds himself stalked by a criminal similar to the fabricated source.

Nothing rings true besides Freeman’s ferocious pimp, Fast Black — not Kathy Baker’s winsome hooker, nor Christopher Reeve’s Harvard-educated freelancer. Yet at least Street Smart has a moral dimension, one large enough to include the dangers of identifying with your subjects and the everyday deceptions encouraged by slick magazines. (Reeve’s editor, for example, insists he change some of his supposedly solid ”facts” — because they don’t fit his idea of the truth.) Even when it’s not interested in exploring the issues, Street Smart at least asks some of the questions.

Cusack and Reeve play accomplished writers gone bad; in director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, a mediocre one trying to go good. As director Reed tells it in the British version’s voiceover narration, Martins is an author of cheap Westerns who’s reduced to traveling to Vienna when his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles, who wrote most of his own dialogue) offers him a job. And so the hack, when he discovers his friend has died mysteriously, becomes an amateur detective.

But for all of his booze and boorishness — ”only a scribbler with too much drink in him,” Trevor Howard’s English officer calls him — Martins soberly wrestles with the worries journalists encounter every day. Such as: Where do his loyalties lie? What are his responsibilities? And when everything he learns runs against everything he knows — what does he believe?

Martins tries desperately to do the right thing and follow the facts rather than his feelings. Yet his sleuthing leads him to resurrect his poor dead friend, then betray him; his efforts to salvage something from this tragedy only turn him into that blackest villain of the McCarthy era, the informer. In the end, having gotten Martins to destroy Lime, Howard’s officer leaves him by the side of the road. Having nothing left to say to him, the love of his life walks past without turning her head.

Standing alone on an empty country avenue, kept company only by dead facts and falling leaves. This is where the truth can leave you. This is where taking a cold hard line on slippery questions can lead.

And this is a road that, these days, fewer and fewer movies travel. Midnight: C; Street Smart: C+; The Third Man: A

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • Movie
  • 155 minutes