True Story, the debut of director Rupert Goold, is based on Michael Finkel’s 2005 memoir of the same name. Finkel was a star reporter for the New York Times, who quickly fell from grace and when it was discovered that a Sunday cover story he wrote on modern-day slavery was a little too free with its details. Finkel (Jonah Hill) retreats to his hometown in Montana to regroup and attempt to rebuild his reputation and career, a feat that is proving to be more difficult than he might have imagined. The proverbial “journalistic equivalent of a lottery ticket” falls into his lap: Christian Longo (James Franco), a fugitive accused of murdering his wife and three children, is caught in Mexico, where has been calling himself Mike Finkel of the New York Times. Fortuitous and strange, could Mike’s literary redemption come at such a sordid price?
That’s the question True Story attempts to thresh out. This is not a courtroom procedural, a cat-and-mouse game, or a CSI-episode-turned-film. If you are looking for a whodunit, this is not it. In fact, while in some ways, Edward Norton and Richard Gere’s cinematic relationship in Primal Fear is reminiscent of Finkel and Longo’s, though this is not an exploration of “look how clever and deceitful sociopaths are.”
Maybe True Story *is* about “the truth” and how elusive that actually is. As a character study, the film is incredibly compelling. James Franco’s acting is especially superb: in his tete-a-tetes with Mike, Franco is the very embodiment of the word “mercurial.” Forget two-faced, he’s three faced. Polar opposite emotions literally flitter across his face every second. He’s chilling, sincere, introspective, alluring, repulsive, calculating, heartless… it is all there. In their push-and-pull relationship, it seems that both men hope to get to learn more about themselves, actually. We get the sense that the excuses Finkel offers to himself for why he lied in the story are as much of a sham as Longo’s. The film seems to suggest that though the gravity of their transgressions is nowhere near the same caliber, both of them know a thing or two about being a pariah.
True Story explores the idea of culpability in a really interesting way. There is no doubt that Finkel, to a much smaller degree, has a bit of a narcissist in him, but the film really wants us to denounce his ambition and point to it as the proverbial cause of his downfall in a Shakespearean sense (e.g. his fatal character flaw). Yet, Finkel’s actions make a good bit of sense; faced with the prospect of never writing again, he latches on to the one story that someone Longo picks *him* to tell. There is the rub: both men are using each other and need each other. Longo needs to sow the seed of doubt about his guilt and Finkel needs a sensationalistic take on a story literally plugged from the headlines. He needs this “scoop” no less than Longo does.
The portrayal of the journalist in True Story suffers from the same wide-eyed aggrandizing that is ubiquitous in just about every film and TV show on the subject (heck, House of Cards, anyone?). We are supposed to sympathize with Finkel because he only fibbed a little on the details to make the story compelling enough to make a difference in the lives of the children’s lives he covers. In other words, he does this out of noble motivations. Yet, the cover story would have been no less compelling had it stuck to the truth. In a particularly ironic exchange between Longo and Finkel, Finkel asks Longo why he picked his name to use on the run. “Because he wanted to see what it was like to be Finkel,” he responds. Why not use any other more anonymous name? Well, because Finkel’s name is just that. What a jab to Finkel’s ego and a wry nod to the viewers! What’s in a name? Clearly, one is famous only when one is infamous. Nobody but the most die-hard acolyte would have recognized Finkel’s name.
The push-and-pull relationship between Finkel and Longo is incredibly compelling to watch. If one goes in with the anticipation of watching a character study rather than a crime thriller, True Story would ring true and engrossing.