“True Story” is not a bad movie; indeed, it’s a creepy little tale that has moments that will unnerve you. But the limitations of its script and of Jonah Hill’s performance in the central role keep it from transcending its shortcomings.
Based on actual events, “True Story” feels like a reporter’s tale, but it wants to be something more. Hill plays real-life reporter Michael Finkel, a hot-shot New York Times magazine writer whose cover stories uncovered injustice and atrocity in war zones and elsewhere around the globe.
Back from assignment for a story that’s made waves, he’s called in to meet with editors, because of complaints about what are being called mistakes in the story. Eventually, Finkel admits that he consolidated characters and their recollections, to create the most impact. It all happened to someone, he rationalizes, even if not to the people whose pictures accompany the story. He also admits to actually fabricating some of the material. The game is up and he’s out.
Though his sympathetic wife (Felicity Jones – really?) welcomes him home from a life of travel, Mike is restless, angry, humiliated – made more so when his pitches to editors at other publications seeking freelance assignments come up empty.
Then he gets a call from a reporter in Oregon: Apparently, a local man named Christian Longo (James Franco) murdered his wife and three small children, then fled to Mexico where he lived as a fugitive under the name “Michael Finkel,” even identifying himself as a New York Times reporter. He’s been captured and is now in jail, awaiting trial.
So Finkel writes to Longo in prison, then travels to meet him to find out why he would use his name as an alias. But, quickly, he is seduced by Longo (who claims he took the name because he was a fan) and, more importantly, by Longo’s story: He’s innocent, with a terrible secret that he will reveal to Finkel on an exclusive basis for a book to be published after his trial.
That relationship between reporters and criminals is always fraught with ethical and moral considerations. But, believing that he’s divined Longo’s real feelings from his conversations with him (and from the elaborate, hand-illustrated letters Longo writes him), Finkel begins pursuing the story of Longo’s innocence, even as a police detective on the case (Robert John Burke) warns him that Longo is a psychotic liar and manipulator.
Thanks to a layered performance by Franco and director Rupert Goold’s willingness to let him play silent moments for maximum tension, “True Story” continually surprises you with scenes in which suspense creeps into casual scenes and makes them something else.
But that brings us to the script – which elides crucial material that makes some of this harder to swallow – and to Hill’s performance, which has a similar effect. One feeds the other.
The script never provides a moment during which Finkel explains why he did what he did or expresses feelings about what those decisions did to him. Is he as compulsive a liar as Longo seems to be? Was he under deadline pressure? Frustrated at his inability to nail down the facts that would make the story truly sing? We never find out.
Which makes him less credible as someone whose nose for bullshit should be trusted. We enter the story thinking this guy is a fake, a cheat, a liar – why would we care about his redemption?
Unfortunately, Hill does nothing to answer those questions or otherwise make us want to invest in Finkel as the character whose story we want to see unfold. He’s only interesting as he relates to Longo, a pawn being manipulated, rather than a reporter caught up in misdirected passion.
Well-made but unbalanced, “True Story” tells an intriguing tale, but never gets beneath the surface and beyond the sensational.