True Story (2015)
Editor’s Note: True Story is out in limited release this Friday, April 17th.
There’s a not inaccurate line of thinking that “true-crime” stories belong on network television or basic cable rather than on cinema screens. Some exceptions exist (e.g., Zodiac, Goodfellas, Monster, Memories of Murder, In Cold Blood), of course, this line of thinking goes, but only in the hands of truly gifted filmmakers (“filmmakers” includes not just directors, but screenwriters too), not in the hands of unimaginative, if to be fair, competent filmmaker like Rupert Goold, a well-respected, British theater director making the Grand Canyon-sized leap (for him, not the audience) to the big screen with True Story, an uninspired adaptation of former New York Times writer Michael Finkel’s memoir, “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.” It should have remained a segment on NBC’s Dateline program.
… an uninspired adaptation of former New York Times writer Michael Finkel’s memoir, “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.” It should have remained a segment on NBC’s Dateline program.
True Story unfolds primarily through a series of jailhouse meetings between Finkel (Jonah Hill) and accused-later-convicted killer Christian Longo (James Franco), bookended by Finkel’s abrupt termination by The New York Times for deliberate, serial fabrication and Finkel’s life after Longo’s conviction. For Finkel, Longo represented probably his last chance to redeem himself and, more importantly, restart his now stalled journalism career. Longo’s story had everything a true-crime aficionado/reader could possibly want, including the seemingly unmotivated of Longo’s family (his wife and three children), post-murder flight to Mexico as a fugitive, capture, incarceration, and a lengthy trial filled with (not so) shocking twists and turns.
For Finkel – and to a large extent, Goold – Longo’s presumed murder of his family wasn’t in and of itself fodder for true-crime memorialization, but Longo’s decision to use Finkel’s name and identity when he fled the United States did. It turned out that Longo was a Finkel super-fan, a rarity among working, non-celebrity journalists. As perfectly embodied by a rarely better Franco, Longo represents a familiar, but no less disturbing, killer, a charming, seductive sociopath; a first-order prevaricator and fantasist; and a narcissist with borderline personality disorder. His motivation for murdering his family, years-long financial difficulties, fraught, fraying relationships, and a deep-seated, unshakeable belief that he deserved much, much better, led him to do the unthinkable (except for Longo, it was just that, thinkable).
As perfectly embodied by a rarely better Franco, Longo represents a familiar, but no less disturbing, killer, a charming, seductive sociopath …
With little suspense or tension regarding Longo’s guilt (a quick perusal of Google and/or Wikipedia will tell interested readers/moviegoers everything they need to know), Goold shifted True Story’s focus to Finkel and Longo’s relationship. As depicted in True Story, Finkel and Longo develop something approaching an actual friendship. Initially, Finkel wants exclusive access to Longo and Longo’s story, the better to exploit Longo’s story for financial and professional gain, but over a series of in-person, jailhouse meetings, Finkel and Longo bond. Goold suggests Finkel, a man prone to lying to advance his career, and Longo, a liar hoping to use Finkel to regain his freedom, are, if not exactly alike, then similar enough to exist on related ends of a personality grid (i.e., serial lying to mass murder).
To some, to suggest Finkel and Longo share key similarities might be a stretch or even an insult; to others, the opposite, but Goold leaves little doubt that he wants moviegoers to go all in, to buy into Longo’s platonic seduction of Finkel (don’t call it a bromance, though you could if True Story was a road comedy, not a crime drama). Despite his experience as a journalist, Finkel begins to shift in his opinion of Longo’s guilt. To anyone on the outside, that sounds like Goold taking dramatic license too far, but apparently Finkel did fall under Longo’s sway, becoming a temporary ally (and just as temporary friend). It’s not just hard to believe. It’s almost impossible. Yet Goold repeatedly fails to make anywhere near a convincing case for Finkel’s seemingly prolong lapse in professional or personal judgment. Ultimately, it proves fatal to whatever he intended to do or the meaning, themes, and ideas he wanted to convey to audiences.
With Longo’s guilt never in doubt and Finkel temporarily joining Team Longo unpersuasive, Goold really has no choice but to put True Story in the hands of Hill, Franco, and Felicity Jones (as Finkel’s onetime girlfriend turned future wife, a typically thankless role). They do their level best, unsurprising given award-nominated performances in their respective pasts. For Hill, Finkel is well within his comfort zone as a dramatic actor, but Franco, an often miscast or frequently bored actor, delivers a mesmerizing performance as Longo. Ultimately, however, their performances aren’t enough to elevate True Story beyond disposable, made-for-cable material (albeit with better production values and more polished visuals).
Franco delivers a mesmerizing performance, but ultimately his performance isn't enough to elevate True Story beyond disposable, made-for-cable material.