2015, R, 100 min. Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 17, 2015
Two disgraced men seek redemption through their relationship with each other. Or maybe something less lofty … perhaps the shamed congress of sinners or the mutual gratification of stroked egos. Each has a hunger to reframe his identity; their shared need creates a symbiotic attachment.
The men are Michael Finkel (Hill), a New York Times writer recently fired from the paper for having fudged the identity of a key subject and other facts in a prominent cover story for the Sunday magazine, and Christian Longo, a prisoner in Oregon awaiting trial for the murder of his wife and three children. Prior to his capture in Mexico and for reasons unknown, Longo had used the alias of Michael Finkel while he was a fugitive. For obvious reasons, Finkel is drawn to Longo’s story, and it turns out that Finkel is the only reporter with whom Longo will speak.
These events actually happened and are recounted by Finkel in his memoir True Story, which has now been fleshed out in movie form. The narrative unfolds mostly through a series of jailhouse meetings during which each man probes the other with questions, although Longo’s veracity is always in doubt. Yet they are both pariahs: Longo a child killer scorned even among the prison population, and Finkel a discredited journalist who can’t land an assignment anywhere. For a time, their relationship serves as a lifeline for each man.
Questions about identity nip about the edges of the film. “I thought you could tell me what it’s like to be me,” says Finkel during one of their initial meetings. Further questions arise from the fact that we know the actors, Franco and Hill, to be friends offscreen, which colors our perceptions of them relating to each other while in character. “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable,” remarks Longo at another point. The truth can be both a goal and a distraction.
British theatre director Rupert Goold makes an assured debut as a film director with this piece, although there appear to be few distinguishing touches overall. Essentially a two-hander between Franco and Hill, the two actors carry the overall weight of the movie, except for a third-act twist (probably more fiction than truth) delivered by Felicity Jones, who up until that point had been relegated to a perfunctory presence as Finkel’s supportive girlfriend. The problem with True Story is that you wish there were more of it. The philosophical questions it encourages are like the tail that wags the dog. The truth becomes something of an obfuscation, and unlike films such as Capote and Infamous, there’s not enough drama about the compulsive relationship between the writer and his felonious subject. True Story is more like watching a chess match between expert players than attending a soccer match that erupts in a crowd riot. The truth, as we’re reminded, may not always be believable. Neither is it always compelling.