Directed by: Rupert Goold.
Written by: Rupert Goold & David Kajganich based on the memoir by Michael Finkel.
Starring: James Franco (Christian Longo), Jonah Hill (Michael Finkel), Felicity Jones (Jill), Maria Dizzia (Mary Jane Longo), Robert John Burke (Greg Ganley), Robert Stanton (Jeffrey Gregg), Ethan Suplee (Pat).
When True Story begins, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is a young, on the rise journalist working for the New York Times. He has had several cover stories for the Times’ Magazine, including his most recent one about a child slave in Africa. But it doesn’t take long after publication for the truth about the story to get out – Finkel amalgamated the story of multiple boys into the story of one. That’s a big no-no, and Finkel soon finds himself fired, and unable to get a new job. He retreats to Wisconsin, where his wife Jill (Felicity Jones) lives to lick his wounds, and try and figure out what to do next. That doesn’t take too long, because Finkel is contacted by another reporter looking for a comment on Christian Longo (James Franco). Finkel has no idea who Longo is – but he soon finds out. Longo has been arrested and charged with murdering his wife and three children. He was arrested in Mexico, where he fled after the murders, and during his time there he told everyone he was “Michael Finkel, of the New York Times”. Finkel contacts Longo hoping the accused multiple murderer will talk to him – which he readily agrees to do. Longo flatters Finkel by telling him he’s a longtime fan and that he’s “read everything you’ve ever written” – and quickly agrees to give Finkel exclusive access to him on two conditions – the first being he doesn’t publish anything until after the trial, and the second being that Finkel teaches him how to write. Finkel agrees to both.
The heart of the movie is made up of these jailhouse meetings between Finkel and Longo. Longo is evasive about what “really happened”, although he assures Finkel that the “true story” has not come out yet. He does feed Finkel a lot of information about his own past, and what led up to the murders. Finkel even starts to like Longo – and think that perhaps he really is innocent. No one else in the movie believes that – and I doubt anyone in the audience watching the film feels that way either. Finkel, who knows a thing or two about liars, apparently cannot spot one when he’s sitting directly in front of him.
The movie is, of course, actually based on a true story – although ironically one that has made the type of changes to it on its way to the screen that got Finkel fired from the New York Times. Of course though, this is a movie, and not a news story, so that sort of thing is allowed. Franco and Hill are, for the most part, quite impressive in their roles – both playing perhaps the most subdued characters of their careers. Franco always seems to be putting on a show in most of his roles – sometimes brilliantly, like in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and sometimes not so much. Here, he doesn’t so much deliver a subtle performance as Longo, but rather a flat one – a performance that seems to have been drained of all emotion, with little going on behind those brown eyes. It’s a creepily effective strategy for Franco, as it makes it all but impossible to get a real read on Longo. Hill is more subdued as well – but he plays Finkel as a man who seems to have a talent for self-delusion – thinking his lies on the New York Times story doesn’t matter, fooling himself into believing Longo because he wants, etc. His Finkel is always thinking – but always seems to be behind, at least up until the end. The rest of the cast is given nothing to do – including the immensely talented Jones, who gets to spend most of her screen time looking at Finkel with a look of concern, as all movie wives seem to do – but at least gets one good scene, where she gives Longo the kind of dressing down he deserves (but probably didn’t happen).
There are a few problems with True Story that ultimately sink the movie however. Debut director Rupert Goold has clearly watched Bennett Miller’s Capote (and perhaps Foxcatcher) a few times, and he tries to capture the same coldness that Miller so brilliantly captured in those true crime movies. In Goold’s hands however, it’s not creepy coldness but boring sameness that he mainly captures. The movie is basically 90 minutes of Finkel figuring out what audiences will have pieced together in the first few minutes of the film. The one flaw I had with Capote, which is otherwise a great movie, with one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s best performances, is that I thought the film was far too hard on Truman Capote himself. The film is harder on Capote than it was on either Perry Smith or Dick Hickock, who killed an entire family over $40 after all – even though, while you can accuse Capote of exploiting the murderers, he also wrote a masterpiece that gave them both back their humanity in the eyes of the reader. True Story, on the other hand, probably lets Finkel off the hook a little too easily. He really doesn’t seem like he’s very good at his job, does it? The movie also doesn’t seem too interested in any of the proceedings around Longo – which would be forgivable, considering how many courtroom scenes we’ve seen in the movies over the years, except for the fact the movie keeps introducing us to characters, who seem important for a scene, and then abandons them. The investigator who tries really hard to get Finkel to co-operate with them, and makes him feel like shit for not doing so, who then completely dismisses Finkel in their next scene. The two women in the courtroom that the camera keeps cutting to, who say mean things to Finkel, but whose presence is never explained (presumably they are family members, but if who exactly they were was explained, I missed it).
And then there is postscript that comes up after the action of the movie is over. Like other recent movies, like The Imitation Game and American Sniper, the postscript tells us things that I wish the movie would have shown us – the biggest one in this case is that Finkel and Longo still talk to each other – the first Sunday of every month. That’s not the impression that the movie gives you when it’s over – but suggests a different, perhaps better more complex story that could have been made out of this “true story”.