Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones
It’s no wonder James Franco and Jonah Hill were drawn to this. They’re best friends who usually churn out absurd comedies (This is the End), but True Story was too intriguing to pass up. Unfortunately, the subject matter is more fascinating than this film version, and the real-life characters more complex than the actors.
Hill portrays New York Times writer Mike Finkel – one of four national journalists cited for inaccurate reporting around the turn of the century. It’s a shame, too, because Finkel’s writing style was brisk and entertaining. However, once a journalist makes a choice to misrepresent sources and material, the damage to one’s reputation is pretty permanent.
About the same time, Christian Longo (Franco) was accused of killing his wife and three kids, dumping their bodies off of Oregon piers and bridges into the Pacific. He fled to Mexico. When he was apprehended, he said his name was Mike Finkel.
Immediately overtaken by his own scandal and confused by Longo’s choices, Finkel drove to Oregon to interview Longo. He hoped these meetings would become a redemptive, career-saving book. In prison on visitation days – before and during the trail – Longo and Finkel created a professional relationship and a tense friendship.
Right now, I’ll admit that nonfiction stories like these usually make movies I love. It’s the same nervous stuff that made Capote so watchable. It also calls to mind an underrated 2003 film, Shattered Glass, about another journalist with shady ethics. This stuff has the possibility of asking challenging questions, getting us to think about the nature of truth. Tales like this exemplify how much journalism is subjective – overtly so (like Fox news) or even more subtly so.
Unfortunately, True Story doesn’t delve; it’s pretty typical of this genre. Director/co-writer Rupert Goold – known for his TV work of Shakespeare’s history plays – misses opportunities to be unique. His flashback scenes are a little misleading. He seems to trust only his actors to carry the film.
That would be a good choice if Franco and Hill were stronger character actors. They’re not terrible, but this is such rich material. Franco uses his stoner charm to create a shady character a lot less charismatic than the real Christian Longo. Hill attempts to show a writer thrown down an intellectual rabbit hole; he ends up just looking a little spacy. Neither actor ever disappears into the lives they represent. If you look up either Finkel or Longo on YouTube, you’ll immediately understand the missed opportunity.
As Finkel’s wife, Jones – coming off her nomination for The Theory of Everything – is underutilized. She does have one really killer scene, a brilliant monologue, toward the end of the film.
The good news is that True Story cannot help but be compelling – that’s built into the groundwork. The bad news is that we can sense how much more interesting this could be. It just needed more interesting directing and more consummate acting. And that’s the truth.