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True Story – Film Review

Story poster

In 2001, when it was discovered that New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) had embellished a story, he was fired.  “You have a great future ahead of you,” an editor tells him.  “But not here.”

At the same time, a man called Christian Longo (James Franco) from Oregon was on the run, accused of murdering his wife and three children.  When he was finally captured in Mexico, he gave the arresting authorities a fake name; he said he was Mike Finkel of The New York Times.

Based on the memoir written by Finkel, True Story is both a diary of events surrounding Finkel’s real-life relationship with Longo and a kind of Mea Culpa; a way for the disgraced NYT reporter to atone for his embellishments.  “I thought you could tell me what it’s like to be me,” the reporter states.

 Story 1

What follows is a series of meetings and interviews conducted by the real Finkel in the stark white visiting room of the prison with Longo who, as portrayed in the film, is only too willing to tell the reporter as much as he can.  But the information comes in stages, and in Longo’s own time.  When Finkel asks the accused murderer why he was so willing to talk to him, the prisoner replies, “I guess I felt like I know you.”

What’s immediately obvious is that Longo is, beyond a doubt, a chronic liar.  The reporter senses this and, worst of all, fears he may be the victim of manipulation, but to what end?  To add to the confusion, from time to time, throughout the various meetings, Longo actually conveys an impression that maybe, just maybe, there’s a slight chance he could be innocent; that perhaps his hesitancy in telling the eager reporter all was that he was hiding something in order to protect someone else.  But at the same time, the reporter knows a thing or two about manipulation himself and wrestles with the fact that Longo is simply leading him on.  “I lost my obligation to the truth,” Finkel states, referring back to what lead to his earlier dismissal.

There’s a continual oppressive feeling of dread that begins with the opening moment.    When the police unzip a wet suitcase retrieved from a nearby river, to their horror, a child’s body is found inside.  That moment of discovery is so devastating, the revulsion can never be shrugged off.  It remains with you throughout.  And it surfaces every time the reporter returns to the visiting room and faces the accused murderer.

 Story 3

Under director Rupert Goold’s guidance, True Story unfolds at a deliberately slow pace.  The meetings between the two men are presented with an unnerving calmness.  Finkel may be studying the accused killer’s face, looking for any indication of mistrust or dishonesty in the man’s expression as he talks of himself and his family and what might have happened that night in Oregon, while at the same time the prisoner is studying the reporter.

Perhaps the film’s most successful achievement is the performance of its two leading players.  You’d think that both Jonah Hill and James Franco would carry the baggage of previous work with them; that their buddy/stoner teenage comedies would always be there, threatening to protrude through a façade of seriousness at any moment, but it never happens.

 Story 2

2011’s Moneyball had already given Hill a forum to effectively illustrate an ability to be something more than simply a slovenly doofus, but not so with Franco.  To be frank, up until True Story, Franco’s mushed-mouth persona only seemed to work when playing a benign, smiling stoner; nothing else – even decent turns in Lovelace, Spring Breakers and the likable Oz the Great and Powerful – never fully clicked.  Yet here, as the man on trial for his life, Franco convinces.  With just a glance, the slightest of smiles and perhaps the most infuriating of cinematic winks across a courtroom, Franco gives what could possibly be the most rounded performance of his career to date.

Felicity Jones, the quintessential English rose who scored so well in the recent The Theory of Everything, also delivers good work as Finkel’s American wife, Jill.  At first the role feels underwritten as if there’s no reason to incorporate the character into the proceedings other than to briefly show her as a supporting background character, but when Jill takes it upon herself to visit Longos in prison, the resulting action is quite astonishing.  It may be a short scene, but when she looks a stunned Longos directly in the eye and tells him that, “You will never, ever escape what you are,” the moment is as devastating as any other moment in the film.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  100 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

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