In the movie "Absence of Malice," Paul Newman plays the part of a man who is too good to be true. He is not only handsome he is wise, and like some sort of contemporary philosopher (Miami-based) he concludes that the trouble with the press is that sometimes it confuses literal truth with The Truth. Now comes the television documentary ''Middletown'' to prove his point.

The first installment, the only one I've seen so far, is about the mayoralty race in Muncie, Ind., between the old-timey organization candidate named James Carey, a Democrat, and a colorless Republican named Alan Wilson. The viewer is led to believe that this is one of those classic contests--a fight between a sentimental Irishman in the mold of Spencer Tracy in "The Last Hurrah" and some new type of freeze-dried politician who says what he is told and lets someone else pick his suits (and his issues) for him. That, though, is only partially the case.

What the viewer is not told is that Carey is not the organization candidate he appears to be nor the favorite he ought to be. The organization's candidate was the incumbent mayor, Robert Cunningham, and Carey beat him in a bitter primary. The Democratic Party, usually dominant, was split and one of the reasons Carey lost the general election is that some Democratic voters, still bitter, just stayed home. So what is missing from this documentary is the little matter of context. The documentary doesn't have one. My own feeling upon learning that Carey was in some sense an insurgent was that I had been manipulated. The man I thought had lost because the other guy was better managed, better dressed and more blown-dry had actually lost for that and other reasons--and maybe the other reasons were the most important.

"Middletown" is a fine film, a fine portrait of a man (Carey), but its sins are, unfortunately, not unusual. They are what the producers of the movie "Absence of Malice" were getting at when they drew a distinction between literal truth and the truth--what is sometimes called the big picture. "Middletown" is yet another example of dramatic or theatrical demands taking precedence over good old-fashioned journalism.

In that sense, the first installment of Middletown is much like the movie "Missing" and like docu-dramas such as the "The Death of a Princess." In the first place, there is a truth-in-labeling problem. What is proclaimed as true may either be only a piece of the truth or just based on truth or some truth and some fiction, as if the two were the same.

"Death of a Princess" got truth and fiction all jumbled up. "Missing" says it's a true story, but it's merely based on one. And the first installment of "Middletown" doesn't tell you what you need to know to figure out what's going on. In fact, it leads you astray.

In "Middletown," either by design or otherwise, the dramatic effect is heightened by the creation of two stereotypes (Wilson and Carey) and the exclusion of information. It turns out that Wilson has more going for him than a nice set of teeth and Carey more of a handicap than an old-fashioned compulsion to call every woman "honey." He's got serious political problems instead.

In his defense, the producer of "Middletown," Peter Davis, says that the film ought to speak for itself. It is a phrase with a nice ring to it (especially because it sounds like the standard newspaper rebuttal of "The story speaks for itself."), but it is really a phrase without meaning. It cannot mean that the viewer (or the reader) is not entitled to have things placed in context or to complain when, like the proverbial blind man, he is led to believe the elephant's tail is a snake.

This is the problem inherent in editing--either print or film, and I suppose it is unavoidable. Something is always going to be left out. But in this case and some other cases, one suspects that information is left out not because of time or space considerations, nor because it is not germane, but in order to build drama.

So, to paraphrase Cole Porter, what is this thing called truth? Well, it is many things, but at the very minimum it ought to be what is demanded of trial witnesses when they are put under oath. In that sense, the first episode of the "Middletown" series, like some other documentaries, is the truth and nothing but the truth.

It's just not the whole truth.