Directed by: Rupert Goold
Premise: An adaptation of Michael Finkel’s memoir, recounting how Finkel (Jonah Hill) came in touch with Christian Longo (James Franco), who was standing trial for murdering his wife and children.
What Works: True Story is a smart picture that deals with the difficulties of maintaining objectivity in journalism, especially when facing the possibility of a scoop. At the start of the picture, Michael Finkel is established as a guy who has allowed his desire to serve a greater good get in the way of his job, as he has fabricated the facts in a story of Africans suffering modern day slavery. This mistake nearly destroys his career and it sets him up as someone who will set aside his disbelief in the hope of making a splash. As a character, Finkel has a lot of layers; he sees himself doing altruistic work but he’s really interested in self-aggrandizement and his self-deceit leads him to serve ignoble ends. After losing his job, Finkel is granted exclusive access to Christian Longo, a man accused of murdering his entire family. Finkel begins his work on the subject, agreeing to what at first seem like reasonable demands, but he is gradually seduced by a psychopath. True Story succeeds in part because it is extremely well shot. The film includes some elegantly disturbing images and director Rupert Goold finds effective ways of staging and photographing the action to take otherwise mundane details and make them frightening. The movie also succeeds because of its lead actors. With his performances in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, Jonah Hill has proven himself to be a talented dramatic actor and as the lead in True Story Hill proves capable of carrying a dramatic movie. The other major performance of True Story is provided by James Franco. While Franco has been called upon to do dramatic roles in the past, his career has been unsteady and his filmography sometimes comes across as a long term piece of performance art in which he nods and winks at the audience through his acting roles. In True Story Franco is much more in character than he has been in some time. He captures the manipulative qualities of a psychopath very well and he is menacing through little gestures and his calm and confidence in the face of multiple murder charges. The interplay between Finkel and Longo gives the movie many of its best scenes and the picture is distressing in the way it depicts a good person unwittingly drafted into serving a murderer.
What Doesn’t: True Story features actress Felicity Jones in a supporting role as Jill Barker, the girlfriend of Michael Finkel. The filmmakers awkwardly handle their relationship. At first it’s not even clear that the two are romantically involved; she might as well be his sister or a close friend. At the film’s opening he lives in New York and she is in Oregon and Finkel returns to live with her after he is dismissed from the New York Times. Why they live so far apart is unclear (as is why it is winter in Oregon but apparently spring in New York) and it isn’t until late in True Story that Hill and Jones’ characters show any affection. The movie doesn’t need them to be all over each other but the actors aren’t convincing as a couple and Jones, who just came off of an Oscar nominated performance in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, is wasted here. In an attempt to give the girlfriend something to do, the filmmakers concoct a confrontation between Barker and Longo in the prison’s visitor room. The scene does not make sense and it plays like a deliberate attempt to give an actor a showy moment. The scene is also unbelievable for realistic reasons. When she confronts Longo, Barker brings a cellphone into the visiting room. A prison would never allow that.
Bottom Line: The filmmakers of True Story aspire to the 2005 film Capote and while it isn’t as good as Bennett Miller’s film the movie does capture the relationship between a nonfiction writer and a murderous subject to sometimes frightening effect.
Episode: #540 (May 3, 2015)