'True Story': Film Review

True Story
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A good-looking but only partly convincing dramatization of sticky journalist/subject dynamics.

James Franco plays an accused killer who buddies up with disgraced reporter Jonah Hill.

The tale of a disgraced journalist who gets a scoop on a potentially career-reviving story and desperately wants to make it work, Rupert Goold's True Story is involving but surprisingly calm, going for stretches without seeming to care whether what he's reporting is an exposé or a cover-up. Instead, the focus is on the relationship between the scribe (Jonah Hill) and his subject (James Franco), who stands accused of killing his wife and three children; their increasing but precarious intimacy recalls the courtship at the heart of Capote without ever approaching its dramatic mixture of empathy and self-interested manipulation. Star power and true-crime sensationalism will help a good deal at the box office, though performances are unlikely to attract enough critical praise to draw out older moviegoers who've grown wary of the sometimes brilliant, sometimes blundering Franco.

Based on the memoir by former New York Times reporter Michael Finkel, the film opens as he's being busted. After penning celebrated stories from dangerous locales for the paper's magazine, Finkel is found to have passed off a composite character as real in a report on modern slavery in Africa. He's fired and publicly exposed, then flees to his Montana home. There, wife Jill (Felicity Jones) comforts him as he tries, unsuccessfully, to pitch stories to other publications.

Then he learns that Mike Finkel is not just a journalistic sinner but an accused murderer. A man in Oregon, Christian Longo, had been using his name in an attempt to elude authorities, who nevertheless caught him in Mexico. Smelling a juicy feature that only he is qualified to write, he arranges to meet Longo in jail.

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The two men strike a bargain that will unsettle many around them: Longo (who implies he is innocent but can't yet bring himself to reveal all he knows) will tell the truth about events to Finkel alone but only if he delays publication until after the trial and gives the aspiring author writing lessons. (The film never questions the odd first condition — if Longo's innocent, how could the truth benefit him after trial?) Soon, Finkel has sold a book pitch and is seeing his subject as a kind of spiritual twin.

A script heavy with two-handed dialogue scenes would seem dangerous for a theater director making his first film, but Goold's work never feels stagey; a smart and varied visual sense opens up even settings as basic as a jail's visiting room. But what happens in that room isn't as convincing as might be expected from these actors. With heavy eyelids and resigned sighs, Franco's Longo projects neither the urgency of the wrongly accused nor the slipperiness of a con man. Hill's Finkel talks a good game, digging up facts Longo doesn't expect to confront and promising to pick apart any story he's given, but his eyes don't reveal the smarts of a man capable of plying reluctant interviewees in places like Haiti and Gaza.

The relationship makes more sense, perversely, when the two are apart. Longo writes epic letters that Finkel devours, stoking his interest in the man more credibly than the hoary get-to-know-you tricks Finkel employs during visiting hours.

As the journalist sinks into his work, his home life predictably suffers. Two interactions between Longo and Finkel's wife may be based on real events, but they play like the inventions of filmmakers hoping both to introduce a hint of menace and to give a talented actress something to do beyond playing piano and taking baths while her husband ignores her in his study.

Viewers who know the story's conclusion may have a hard time finding drama in Longo's trial, but others should view it as the film's highlight even if they've already guessed the nature of the secrets he has kept throughout his imprisonment. We're left with the impression that the defendant, his prosecutors and even a woman who meets him just once understand Christian Longo better than the man hired to write his story. True Story suggests that Finkel doesn't know himself all that well either.

Production companies: New Regency, Plan B

Cast: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol, Ethan Suplee

Director: Rupert Goold

Screenwriters: Rupert Goold, David Kajganich

Based on the book by: Michael Finkel

Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Anthony Katagas

Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Arnon Milchan

Director of photography:  Masanobu Takayanagi

Production designer: Jeremy Hindle

Costume designer: Catherine Marie Thomas    

Editors: Christopher Tellefsen, Nicolas De Toth

Music: Marco Beltrami

Casting director: Douglas Aibel

Rated R, 99 minutes