From the very beginning True Story is off. Let’s start with the title. As it turns out, it is from a memoir of the same name, but the narrative to which it lends itself to comes across as ironic. Two, the film is off in the sense of its presentation. It begins with a stuffed bear dropping listlessly toward a little girl that is curled up. She isn’t nestled on a couch or on top of a bed with covers pulled. She is in an open suitcase, clothes nestled around her. Any moment now she’s bound to wake up when the plush toy comes into contact. She does not.
That action signals the muted horror of a film that works as a true crime story but is more a relationship drama between a criminal and a journalist; two men drawn together by a name.
Starring Jonah Hill as the journo and James Franco as the incarcerated, the two are very different yet over-identifying men bound by a lie and much more as the story goes into onion mode, peeling away the layers.
Set in 2002, Hill plays Michael Finkel, a respected New York Times writer who is fired after he purposely distorts facts and accounts in a magazine cover article about slavery and mistreatment at cocoa plantations in Mali. In the meantime, thousands of miles away, one of the FBI’s ten most wanted, fugitive Christian Longo (Franco), is apprehended in Cancun. Upon his arrest he told police he was “Michael Finkel.”
Longo’s usage of the name finds its way back to Finkel and the two men meet. One with paper and pen, glasses straight; the other in an orange jumpsuit. Questions abound as to the prevarication. Why my name? Christian respects Michael as a writer and offers him something he can’t let slip away: Longo will tell him his story if Michael agrees to withhold its publication until after the trial has concluded. All he wants in exchange is someone to help him become a better writer – or so he says. Blackballed and with no paper willing to hire him, Michael agrees to the terms seeing the story as a means back to publishing and his own redemption.
The methodology behind the crime isn’t as important as Christian and Michael’s relationship and indiscretions. At one point Finkel tries to answer and justify his reasons for twisting facts in his African slave cover story. Conflating facts for the personal desire for adulation is fairly atypical for the profession. Christian is similar in this regard. He wants his story told and sees Finkel as the easy mark, someone he can manipulate.
Dancing around the dicey nature of writer and murderer, True Story plays like Bennett Miller’s Capote, which centers on author Truman Capote and his fascination with the unexplained murder of a family of four shot to death in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Strangely enough, the short article that spurred Capote’s interest was published in The New York Times. This would lead to the publication of In Cold Blood, a “nonfiction novel” (as he described it) that would launch the modern true-crime novel.
Jonah Hill, who has spent most of his acting career in comedies, forgoes laughs and plays Finkel flat and straight, showing a nebbish quality when around Longo. Franco may very well be the hardest working man in showbiz, acting as a circus performer as he juggles acting, writing, and directing. He may not know how to host the Oscars, but he is over-committed to cinema, to the extent that it affects his output. But when he’s on, he’s on. This is the same Franco that did a few episodes of General Hospital in between Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. In True Story, Franco is on his game, capturing the duality of Longo’s personality and never showing his hand to the audience on what facade is the real one.
True Story comes from Rupert Goold, who is making his feature film debut having transitioned to the world of cinema after directing a pair of Shakespeare productions in the U.K. He gets the most of his two main characters but doesn’t quite stick the landing at film’s end. True Story succeeds in dropping the procedural elements in favor of human behavior. The conclusion could have done without the “where are they now” type epilogue but such is case with most stranger than fiction tales built around crimes or heroic feats.
Director: Rupert Goold
Writer: Rupert Goold and David Kajganich, based on the memoir by Michael Finkel
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones
Running Time: 99 minutes
Rating: R (for language and some disturbing material)