D: Rupert Goold / 99m
Cast: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke, Ethan Suplee, Gretchen Mol, Maria Dizzia, Byron Jennings
A journalist with the New York Times, Mike Finkel (Hill) hands in an assignment that looks at the African slave trade. It becomes the cover story for the New York Times Magazine, but later it’s discovered that Finkel hasn’t been entirely honest about his research and has created a composite character for the story’s focus. Finkel is subsequently fired and returns to his home in Montana where he lives with his wife Jill (Jones). At around the same time, the discovered bodies of a woman and her three children has led authorities to Mexico where they arrest a man who claims to be Mike Finkel. His real name, though, is Christian Longo (Franco), and he’s accused of having killed his family.
When Finkel becomes aware that Longo claimed to be him, he becomes intrigued. He begins to look into the case, and travels to see Longo in prison. At their first meeting, Longo tells Finkel he’s admired his writing for a long time. They also strike a bargain: in return for Longo’s story, Finkel will teach him to write and he won’t discuss what they talk about until after Longo’s trial. Soon after, Finkel receives a lengthy letter in which Longo describes the events that led up to his wife and children’s murders – but it stops short of going further.
Over the next few months as the two men continue to meet, Longo intimates that he didn’t kill his family, and Finkel begins to believe he may be innocent, even though Longo avoids giving any definitive statement on the matter, and refers to a mysterious “someone” he needs to protect. He tells Finkel he’ll plead Not Guilty at his arraignment, and the journalist begins to believe that there must be another answer to the question of who murdered Longo’s wife and children. But at the arraignment, Longo pleads Not Guilty to the murders of two of his children, and Guilty to the murder of his wife and other child. Feeling betrayed, Finkel confronts him, but Longo hides behind the idea that he’s protecting someone.
As the trial approaches, Finkel – who has been busy turning his and Longo’s correspondence into a book – now begins to doubt the veracity of Longo’s claims, but though he’s approached by one of the detectives who arrested Longo, Greg Ganley (Burke) and asked to provide evidence for the prosecution, he refuses. The trial takes place and the prosecution puts forward a convincing case for Longo’s guilt. But then the defence begins its case, and Longo is called to the stand…
At one point in True Story, Christian Longo tells Mike Finkel that “sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.” It’s a fine idea, and the movie trades on Longo’s assertion for most of its running time, leading the audience down various dead ends and blind alleys in an attempt to keep the mystery of what really happened to Longo’s family from being revealed too soon. There’s always a degree of fun to be had from a character who is deliberately elliptical, or who hides behind a wall of half-clues and misdirection, but while Franco’s cold-eyed, hooded expressions suit the character’s manipulative nature, the movie isn’t so convincing that anyone would think Finkel could be easily duped. In fact, the way in which their scenes are set up and choreographed, it should have been obvious that Longo was trying to influence Finkel’s thinking, and by doing so, gain an acquittal at his trial.
But as many people say, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is something that the movie can’t quite avoid dealing with. As a fairly straightforward retelling of a relationship between two narcissistic, prideful individuals, the movie wisely avoids coming down on the side of one character over the other, but at the same time, Finkel’s credulity is incredibly worrying; he is a seasoned journalist after all, even if he has made an almighty, career-shredding error of judgment. Hill plays him as a kind of eager puppy dog, wanting to be liked and willing to believe in anything that will help him get back on top. He also shows the desperation Finkel feels when the book deal is jeopardised, or when he begins to suspect that Longo is probably guilty – he needs Longo to be innocent so that he won’t look like he’s been fooled.
As the potential murderer of his entire family, Franco keeps Longo self-contained and aloof, meeting Finkel partway but never revealing anything of real substance. He uses a blank expression to convey all the audience needs to know about him, and acts with his eyes for the most part, conveying hurt and innocence and sadness, but failing to show any regret for his family’s demise, or anger at being arrested. (Again, it’s worrying that Finkel never picked up on any of this.) Both actors play well against each other, with Hill slightly edging it by virtue of his being more emotive. As Jill, Jones – in a somewhat underwritten role – is given a remarkable scene in which she’s able to confront Longo and show her contempt for him, but it smacks too much of writer’s licence, and as a result, interrupts the movie’s flow. Elsewhere she’s required to look concerned and irritable by turns, and her participation becomes yet another example of a very talented actress being shamefully underused.
Making his feature debut, Goold steps up from directing British TV dramas to make a solid, if restrained movie that tries its best to examine issues of trust and falsehood, as well as public perception, but ultimately it shies away from looking at them in any depth. Goold is better with his cast, even when his screenplay – co-written with David Kajganich – has them repeating conversations and scenes, and emphasising over and over the “mystery” that Longo implies has happened. There’s also an attempt at some basic psychology that doesn’t come off too well, and it’s a humourless piece for the most part, with only a few ironic statements to leaven the drama.
Rating: 7/10 – absorbing for the most part, True Story tries to be direct and complex at the same time, but the two approaches don’t mix, leaving the audience with a story that leaks vitality and energy as it progresses; Hill and Franco are good value, and Longo’s testimony is a highlight, but there are too many questions left unanswered for it to be entirely successful.