It’s a privilege to be a journalist. We’re granted unprecedented access to all sorts of events/incidents/situations and we’re allowed to collect data that the common man wouldn’t be permitted to, but what we do with those truth-packed notebooks rests completely on our shoulders. Now, I’m just a simple film journo, writing about movies and chatting with celebs, so my moral obligations are quite easy to follow. What about a writer for the New York Times, though, patrolling the war-torn streets of some battered, third-world nation? Does he/she succumb to political bias, sympathetic pressures, and manipulated storytelling in the face of cold, hard, facts? That, in essence is what True Story is about – for a short while. Then it delves into how we manipulate truths, get caught in idolization, and cling tightly to a “great white hope” while choosing to ignore the repercussions.
Jonah Hill plays Michael Finkel, a disgraced New York Times writer who is fired from the publication after stringing together an African slave piece that turned the stories of five abused boys into one. Distraught, looking for work, and stuck in his snowy home, things take a strange turn when Michael receives a chance phone call. An Oregonian reporter asks to interview him, and Michael asks “Why?” out of confusion. This is where the struggling writer learns that an accused murderer named Christian Longo (James Franco) was arrested, and he was using Finkel’s name as an alias. This starts a strange relationship built out of morbid curiosity and a thirst for answers, but is Longo’s admiration clouding the disgraced journalist’s judgement?
True Story is at times a surface-value assessment of finding answers in the darkest places, and at others, it’s a revealing dissection of idolization and the lies we’re able to ignore when our own mind fabricates something better. Much of Finkel’s detective work is carried out off-camera, as Hill continually brings forth contradictory information that would have offered a few more interactions than just Finkel and Longo – but maybe that’s to keep a focus on the dramatic relationship on hand. Finkel sees Longo’s possible innocence as a saving grace, leading to a cushy book-advance, but it’s almost as if he’s believing in a false God. The mind works in twisted, self-serving ways, and Longo’s gaze puts Finkel into a dangerous trance.
The enchanting back-and-forth between Longo and Finkel is thanks to both Franco and Hill, two extremely comfortable actors who know how to push each other around on a level that random performers might not have reached. There’s a tense compassion between the two, but also a slow building of coy distrust as Finkel starts to detect ulterior motives behind Longo’s coaxing. In order for True Story to succeed, you need to find yourself just as enamored as Finkel does, and Franco’s sly smile is enough to throw our judgement. While Franco’s demeanor doesn’t change much from previous dramatic arcs he’s tangled with, it’s rather well-suited for Longo’s slick facade. We’re able to easily understand why Finkel invests so much time into a convicted felon with a monster’s soul, almost as if the film slowly evolves into a modern-day horror experience.
With that said, True Story finds itself at a disadvantage due to its, well, true nature. There’s so much worth dissecting in the relationship between Longo and Finkel, but a lot of the influential factors pressing from the outside are glossed over rather quickly – forgotten in passing. Rupert Goold, who gets a screenplay credit along with his director role, splices in flashbacks to “Longo’s” nightmarish acts in dubious ways that don’t reveal who could be responsible, but the act runs thin as Finkel comes to grips. There’s a deceptive struggle between Longo and Finkel, one worth the price of admission, but we never feel completely overtaken by Franco’s maniacal guise. I’ve encountered cinematic killers that make me feel uneasy, dirty, and almost sinful (despite charming demeanors), yet these exchanges – while inherently creepy – don’t exactly hit upon the harrowing notes Goold hopes.
Then again, there are brilliant questions asked that we can only answer ourselves. Who is the monster here? Ambition? Society? An accused murderer? Lies? It almost seems that if you’re eloquent enough, you can put a unseen spin on anything. That’s the TRUE horror. That’s the horror we face every day we pick up a newspaper filled with bias, or listen to slanderous TV stations proclaim “X individual is the devil incarnate!”
True Story is more of a cautionary tale told through the interlocking ties between Jonah Hill and James Franco, and while Goold glances over what could have turned into interesting moments full of backstory establishment, he still captures all the nasty questions previously mentioned. Even if I think that the final title cards sully the film’s more punctual, nerve-racking closing shot.