The general public seems to have a particular fascination with stories of disgraced journalists. You could pin this on our collective insistence upon the unadulterated truth, and the fury that results when what is presented as such turns out to be completely false. But more likely, it’s simple schadenfreude. We enjoy watching successful people flame out, whether it’s a Kardashian or Jonah Lehrer.
The movies often mythologize the life of the intrepid reporter, making it look excitingly hectic, and his or her downfall devastating—think All The President’s Men on the one hand, Shattered Glass on the other. True Story however, doesn’t achieve this same level of journalistic aggrandizing, even though the bizarre real-life events it details seem like appropriate fodder. The film is bogged down by cliché after cliché and truly hackneyed direction, what turn a very interesting story into something of a morass. And though it attempts to tackle issues of reportorial and moral integrity—just how far someone will go to convince him or herself that the end justifies the means—it is ultimately totally out of its depth.
In 2002, celebrated New York Times journalist Michael Finkel’s career seemed like it might be over. The author of many well-received pieces in the magazine section was discovered to have fabricated details in a story he wrote on the current slave trade in Africa. He was promptly fired, and moved back home to Montana to figure out his next step.
Jonah Hill plays Finkel as bright-eyed, slightly arrogant and utterly confident that the lies he added to his story were justified by the important nature of the subject matter. In the film’s prologue, he offers his interview subjects cash for answers, and seems determined to get the story he wants rather than the story that actually is. Upon his return home, he discovers that a fugitive wanted for the murder of his wife and three young children has been captured in Mexico. It turns out that the man, Christian Longo, had assumed Finkel’s identity while on the lam. James Franco plays this possible psychopath with an everyman demeanor, prone to long pauses and loud swallows when he’s thinking of what to say next—which is often.
Hill and Franco have long careers playing both silly and earnest, together in This Is The End and apart in films like Moneyball and 127 Hours. Here, they are firmly ensconced in “somber performance” mode. The two are fine actors, albeit without a terribly wide range, but the material they work with in this film is the real problem. True Story becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse tale, built around conversation instead of action, as the two men begin to meet regularly at the prison where Longo is being held. Finkel decides to write a book about Longo, ostensibly to reclaim his journalistic integrity, but the two soon build a symbiotic friendship, each feeding off the other’s need to justify his past actions.
The script relies heavily on some tired lines, including the old chestnut (paraphrased here), “We’re not so different, you and I…” Yes, both men have committed sins—one more serious than the other, for sure—which leads Finkel to ask, “Did you do it?” “I could be asking you the same question,” retorts Longo, furthering hammering the point home. A bromance has developed, and this increasingly close relationship clearly bothers Finkel’s wife, Jill, played by Felicity Jones in a role that mostly involves worried looks and disapproving glances. But boys will be boys, even when they are both looking into abysses of varying depths, and these two will see it through to the inevitably bitter end.
There are laughable, made-for-TV scenes throughout the film, including a montage comprised of moody shots of Finkel looking into the distance that fade into moody shots of Longo looking into the distance. This is accompanied by a piano score that matches shots of Jill playing the keyboard to Finkel’s hands clacking away on his typewriter. It’s uninspired filmmaking, to say the least. Also, there’s the requisite reveal that Finkel has covered his office wall with pages of the letters he receives from Longo—does any writer really do this?
All of these details are distracting, which is too bad because the story has all of the elements that comprise so many good movie plots—ego, lies, murder and the hidden forces that drive us to commit these acts. If you really want to hear the true story behind True Story, you’re probably better off reading Finkel’s memoir upon which this movie is based.
Director: Rupert Goold
Writers: Rupert Goold and David Kajganich
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones
Release Date: April 17, 2015
Jonah Flicker lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and writes about travel, movies, music, food, drink and Iceland for a variety of publications. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.