TRUE STORY is not merely a compelling title, it is a factually correct summation of the core of the film. In a world where you can spin and mold almost any concept to suit your needs, Truth, as an entity, is absolute. There is no interpretation to truth; you’re either telling it like it is or you’re dishonest. End of discussion. While TRUE STORY is not a story within a story, it does illustrate its central concept of truth from several angles, and in that regard is a powerfully effective film. It tells the story of two men in need drawn together by the strangest of circumstances, told in a straightforward and linear trajectory.
Jonah Hill plays journalist Michael Finkel who, in 2001, was at the top of his game writing for the New York Times and had to his credit 7 cover stories for that institution’s venerable Sunday Magazine. After publishing his eighth cover piece about enslaved young African men, he was fired from the newspaper when it was discovered that he had fabricated the main character in the article. He attempted to defend himself by maintaining that an amalgam of truths is as valid as varied individual truths. The New York Times disagreed. Upon returning to his girlfriend’s home in Montana he is told that a man, Christian Longo, has been arrested for murdering his wife and three young children and has been claiming to be Michael Finkel the journalist. The film focuses on the fascinating and interdependent relationship between the two men which has everything to do with allegiance, need, desperation, self-interest and fame, and little to do with truth.
Longo is payed exceedingly well by James Franco who has, in this role, achieved the rare ability to dissolve himself (and his large persona) fully into the character, to the degree that I lost sight of ‘James Franco.’ It is possibly the best performance I have ever seen from him. Franco’s Longo, with dark hollow eyes, is marked by an erraticism which is startling and leaves you ever guessing about the validity of his story as well as his motives with Finkel. Franco can cast a glance so saturated with malice and deceit that you can feel the murderous energy of Longo himself. “When I was being you, it was the happiest I’d been in a long time,” Longo says to Finkel, suggesting the black hole his life had become and feeding Finkel’s ego in precisely the way the journalist craves.
I wish that I could laud Hill’s portrayal of Finkel just as much, but his performance is the movie’s critical flaw and prevents it from being the taut gripping story it is in reality. Jonah Hill does comedy well and that is no easy feat. He is also, of late, a fairly effective character actor. He is not however, for myriad reasons, a leading man. It is not about his physicality per se, although I must admit his baby-faced youthfulness is distracting and renders his portrayal of a man with Finkel’s accomplishments utterly unconvincing. Where Finkel was ambitious and calculating, Hill is bumbling and pouty. Moreover, Hill cannot summon the gravitas, the psychic weariness that Finkel surely suffered as a result of the scandal with the New York Times which essentially ended his journalistic career. Hill does put forth a high energy, frantic desperation and tries valiantly to have the weightiness of a man in Finkel’s position and with his experience, but he can’t, and that prevents their relationship from having the power it needs to be truly convincing.
TRUE STORY holds your attention not just because we want to see the legal outcome for Longo (for those of course who are not familiar with the case) but because of the fascinating symbiosis between the two men. They have a relationship without question, but of what nature exactly? Who is using whom, when, and to what end? And if we come full circle to the precept of ‘truth,’ is it present in either man, or the situation as a whole? That is the aspect of the story which elevates it beyond a mere true crime chronicle. I so want the film to live up to its narrative potential but it falls short. This is director Rupert Goold’s first film (he is also a co-writer of the film) and he has a nice touch. The two primary settings visually serve the story effectively: The house deep in the Montana woods underscores Finkel’s new life as an untouchable pariah, and the absolute white sterility of the prison meeting room provides the men a blank slate upon which to project and bounce off each other endlessly. It is not quite a parable but the connection between Finkel and Longo does have a slightly biblical quality and forces you to consider your own truthfulness or lack thereof in the face of need, fame, money – everything really. Franco and Hill have a clearly established relationship both on and off the screen. In this case TRUE STORY would have been better served by breaking up the clique.
Director: Rupert Goold
Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Gretchen Mol
Runtime: 100 minutes
True Story Movie Review