By Gary Murray
Starring Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones
Written by Rupert Goold and David Kajganich
Directed by Rupert Goold
Based on the memoir by Michael Finkel
Running time 100 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Matinee
There are stories that are too weird to be true. They are films that are either documentaries or real life dramas that take the basic true elements of a story and put it in a fictional setting. A good example of the first is The Thin Blue Line and a good example of the latter is Bernie. The latest film to take on this idea is True Story.
The film begins with conflicting story lines that take place in 2002. Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is a reporter for The New York Times. When our film opens, he is interviewing a third world kid about torture and other atrocities happening in the kid’s homeland. We also see Michael paying for information.
Back home, he constructs his story. It is to be another headline piece. In a short amount of time, Michael has become the wonder kid of the paper. He has his dream job and a perfect life.
His world begins to unravel when a rival claims that Michael has made up his story. Come to find out, Michael has combined the stories of different kids into one victim. He sees nothing wrong with a fictionalization of events to get the basic point across. The New York Times does not see it that way and is forced to write a retraction of the story. It is the death nail of Michael Finkel’s career. No one will touch a disgraced reporter.
On the other side of the story, Christian Longo has been accused of killing his family. He fled the country and was eventually captured. Longo claimed he was Finkel and on an assignment. When the real Finkel hears about the deception, he decides to meet the man who claimed to be him. Finkel finds Longo a fascinating subject and decides to write a book about the man. Finkel sees himself more as Truman Capote of In Cold Blood fame. The two conceive of writing a manifesto book that proves Longo is innocent.
Eventually, Finkel comes under the spell of Longo and believes every word he utters. It almost feels that Longo is the older brother and Finkel is the awe struck kid brother. He never sees the grand scheme of a game Longo is playing on the reporter.
To round out the cast is Felicity Jones as Finkel’s wife, Jill. One night, Longo makes a jail house call and gets Jill on the phone. He tries to use his skills of charm to win her over. She shows that women are much smarter than men when it come to understanding bull when they hear it.
When watching this film, one begins to see a dynamic between the two male leads. Jonah Hill is playing a character, someone who is at a distance from his real life. One feels that James Franco is playing himself. Not saying he’s a serial killer, but he is that suave individual who can charm anyone into anything.
Truly, the only other person with any kind of a part is Felicity Jones and she basically has one scene to shine. But, how does she shine in this small role. It becomes the turning moment of the screenplay where we get the downfall of one character and the simultaneous rise of another. She is the kind of woman who knows when someone is trying to manipulate her. Unlike Finkel, she knows when a false seduction is happening. It is a great reading.
The film is co-written and directed by Rupert Goold and based on the Michael Finkel book. Goold is basically a television director and this is his first stab at a major motion picture. There are moments where he captures true instants between the men but at the same time the film feels a bit claustrophobic. That may be the point of the film, showing both the trapped nature of the physical characters while showing the emotional nature of confinement. In the end we have a lost soul and a murderer, both men in situations of their own making.
True Story is not a great film but it is an interesting one. It is the kind of film that one may catch on a rainy afternoon than to make a gigantic effort to seek out. Some good performances but a final edit that is a bit too long for the story being told.
The final credits give the audience an ironic twist to the film. The absurd nature of both professional journalism and life are shown in a scant few seconds of screen time. It becomes another example of how a True Story is stranger than fiction.