“True Story” is as the title suggests, based on actual events. A New York Times reporter, Michael Finkel, played by Jonah Hill, is canned from his prestigious job after it is revealed that he “combined some details” regarding a story on the African slave trade. While he may or may not have realized the severity of his actions at the time (the movie isn’t too clear on that either – whether he actually thought he was making a mere stylistic choice, or made the conscious decision to throw journalistic integrity out the window), he ends up back in his rural home, with his quiet, contemplative wife Jill. He cannot land a job anywhere, since you know, journalism work kind of depends on your credibility. Eventually, he is contacted out of the blue by a local writer, who wants his take on the recently captured Christian Longo, played by James Franco, who after murdering his wife and three young children, traveled under Finkel’s name and identity. Naturally, this piques Finkel’s interest, and he reaches out to the incarcerated Longo, asking to meet him. Longo agrees. From here, the movie takes a few cues from “Silence of the Lambs,” especially in the scenes with Longo and Finkel, face to face in the prison, playing psychological games to get at the heart of each other’s motives.
Finkel sees a shot at redemption through telling the story of Longo, especially when the prisoner smiles and promises Finkel exclusive access to him and his story. In exchange, Longo tells Finkel that he wants to learn to write – which the audience quickly realizes is a ploy, a grab for attention as much as for Finkel’s sympathy. The cat and mouse mental game that ensues between them, all the way through to Longo’s murder trial and its aftermath, is pretty riveting stuff.
While the facts of the case give little doubt as to Longo’s guilt, the movie takes a more interesting stand. While in no way making Longo’s character sympathetic, it shows us how Finkel is tricked into almost buying into the idea of his innocence. This movie does a neat trick of doing the exact same thing to its audience as what happens to the journalist character – keeping us in the dark when it comes to the killer’s motives, details of the murders, and the how and why of it all. While we aren’t exactly surprised at the conclusion, it’s a really nice ride getting there.
The cast: James Franco is miscast as Christian Longo. He’s a little too familiar, a little too goofy to entirely shed the stoner comedy patina. Still, he’s believable enough, and underplays when it’s important to do so. Jonah Hill on the other hand, is excellent. We buy into him as Finkel, and from the very first scene, Hill proves why he is one of the most underrated actors working today. Felicity Jones as Jill doesn’t have a lot to do, mainly wandering throughout the film with a confused, open-mouthed expression, but she does have a nice scene when she confronts Longo towards the film’s end. Michael Finkel may be taken in by Longo’s nice-guy act, but his wife Jill most definitely is not.
There are a lot of themes running through this movie, self-promotion, the culture of glorifying petty celebrity, the nature of truth in journalism (and everyday life), and whether or not those who commit heinous acts should even have their stories told. It doesn’t take sides, just hints at them, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. In an age where most movies have an agenda that is hurled in your face from the opening credits onward, it’s a nice change of pace to have a film suggest thinking for yourself.
Note (Spoilers): The notes that play before the credits sequence in the film are somewhat misleading. While Finkel did in fact never write for the New York Times again, and Longo, who as of this year is still awaiting the death penalty, did contribute several articles to prominent news publications, Finkel’s post-Longo career is alive and well. He won the National Magazine Award for photojournalism in 2008, for an article submitted in National Geographic.