“True Story” has its moments as a production about murder and a trial, but it isn’t as awe-inspiring as “Twelve Angry Men” is or innovative like “Serial Podcast.”
While the plotline outlines well what happened to Michael Finkel as reporter, his relationships with his wife Jill, played by Felicity Jones, and Longo, the murderer, aren’t convincing. Instead of a married couple who have been living in a long-distance relationship, Finkel and Jill seem to be at best in some kind of former relationship that had gone sour– but not so much that he can’t call and invite himself to her house to stay for a while when he is summarily fired.
There just isn’t any there there. Jones, well-known for the warmth she provided Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything,” plays a university librarian in the film who lives mostly inside her own head. Confronted by her husband in the library stacks, the six inches between their faces could be the length of the room for all the heat the meeting generates. When she begins to show some interest in the book he is to write, he bats her away from a printout she was just about to read, and she hands it back with just a “Sorry.”
“You should be proud,” she tells him when he says he has been offered $250,000 by a major publisher for his book, but why the stiff upper lip instead of embracing with abandon? The rustic house in Montana, the Land’s End-style vests, the hike to the multi-mailbox site to send his first two chapters off to his publisher—all seem contrived here for this actor. Jonah Hill deserves his chance at a serious role, and Jones no longer has to pay dues in the queue for wonderful parts, but perhaps they might both do better with a different lead partner or could have done better with a different approach in this film.
Nonetheless, this film is in a long tradition of legal matters gone awry and those who want to set them straight—for whatever reason. “Twelve Angry Men”—the original from 1957– is one of the best films in this league, even though it is in black and white and has some outdated references. A jury of peers who must come to consensus—not a majority but a consensus—locked in a room on a hot day until they decide, and with “reasonable doubt” a difficult concept for some to understand– is a powerful vehicle for demonstrating human nature under pressure.
“Serial Podcast” has some of the same elements that “Twelve Angry Men” does, over fifty years later. What did the witnesses really see? Is that what they said they saw? What did some jurors notice about the witnesses that other jurors didn’t? What about personal bias on the part of some of the jurors? And why does Henry Fonda as Mr. Davis think he can persuade everyone else that there is reasonable doubt when most of them just want to vote and get it over with? What does Sarah Koenig do that implies the same, even while she and Davis say they don’t know whether the accused is guilty or not?
“True Story” lacks the tension that is present in both of these productions. It seems predictable from beginning to end, a picaresque wandering through the landscape tilting, perhaps, at windmills. That said, the story is a personal triumph for Michael Finkel, who made a crucial mistake in his reporting at a major national newspaper, survived it, and turned the macabre synchronicity of an accused man using his name into an opportunity to investigate a story. His book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa is the basis for this film.
Linda Chalmer Zemel also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column. She teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College. Her book, “There Must Be Fifty Ways to Write Your Memoir”: Memoir-writing made possible” is on Kindle.