Thursday, April 16, 2015

“True Story”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “True Story”, starring Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones.


When a disgraced journalist learns an accused murderer is using his name, he authors a book about the experience – but will he inadvertently wind up helping to set free a dangerous killer?


As a reporter for The New York Times, Michael Finkel (Hill) has contributed many important stories for the newspaper.  After writing a piece about slavery in Africa, some of his research is called into question; an embarrassed New York Times is forced to print a correction and as a result, Finkel is fired. With his reputation now in tatters, Finkel moves back to Montana with his wife Jill (Jones) and tries unsuccessfully to sell freelance pieces to various publications. During this period, he is contacted by a local journalist who informs him accused murderer Christian Longo (Franco) has been posing as Finkel. Stunned, Finkel heads to the Oregon prison where Longo is being held to meet with him.

In their meeting, Longo admits to a degree of hero worship for Finkel; having spent much of his life secretly wanting to be a writer of Finkel’s quality, he claims to have used Finkel’s name in order to protect his true identity – but he chose Finkel specifically because that’s who he truly wished he was. Seduced by the depth of Longo’s admiration, Finkel finds himself befriending Longo; he tries to ascertain Longo’s guilt and if so, what his reason was for killing his wife and all three children. Longo sends Finkel a lengthy handwritten letter detailing no only his background, but his relationship with his family. Suspecting the possibility of a book which could repair his reputation, Finkel successfully pitches the idea to a publisher.

Proceeding with a draft, the publisher promises Finkel a substantial advance, but Longo is assured that he will not see any financial gain from either its publication or sale. As Longo’s trial begins, however, Finkel is starting to suspect that Longo has played him like a violin. Seeing he has been manipulated, Finkel brings a draft of his book to the prosecution in the hope that it can be used to ensure a guilty verdict for Longo; they decline his offer, citing his relatively recent reputation for lack of honesty and accuracy in his reporting. Taking the stand on his own behalf, Longo gives a rather bizarre and fantastic but nevertheless sincere testimony, insisting that it was his wife who killed the children. But will this help to set Longo free or will he be found guilty of all the murders?


“True Story” is a complicated and intriguing multi-layered story of redemption and deception – deception of others as well as the delusion of self-deception. As the characters reveal themselves, it seems Longo and Finkel get caught up not only in the lies they tell others but also the lies they tell themselves. The main reason to see this movie is because of the performances by Hill and Franco; it could be argued that while Finkel is seeking redemption through his book about Longo, Franco might just as easily be seeking redemption (possibly for the recent controversy of the ho-hum “The Interview”).

The film itself is a slightly different matter. What’s problematic is the manner in which its story is told – or perhaps more to the point, the omission of certain information, which is rather frustrating. While there may be movies that run on longer than necessary, the odd thing about “True Story” is that it’s too short – for a tale that’s so character-focused, it’s a little thin when it comes to background or motivations for either character. True, Finkel is in need of redemption – but why use Longo since it only reinforces the suspicion of Finkel’s narcissism? Why did Longo kill his family? Allusions are made to possible financial difficulties, but it’s so vague, it suggests that since the movie is based on Finkel’s book, once again his research is flawed.

A quirky aspect to “True Story” – but something that is consistent with real life – is the fact that neither of the main characters is a true protagonist; there is very little that could be considered heroic about Finkel and absolutely nothing heroic about Longo. While Finkel may not be as evil as Longo, neither is he the most sympathetic character – if anyone, an audience’s sympathies would most likely go to Jill. In the end, did Finkel acquire the redemption he so desperately sought? Well, HarperCollins published his book and Hollywood purchased the rights to said book in order to produce a major motion picture based on its story. Draw your own conclusion. 


True Story (2015) on IMDb

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