Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is an ambitious and successful reporter for the New York Times. After being confronted by his editors for partially fabricating one of his cover stories, he is fired and from there returns home to Montana with his Jill (Felicity Jones).
Due to his dismissal from NYT, Finkel struggles to find work again, but an opportunity presents itself when he’s contacted by a reporter from the Oregonian who tells him that Christian Longo (James Franco) – a man serving time for the murder of his wife and three kids – has been stealing his identity prior to his arrest. Intrigued, Finkel decides to meet with Longo, a personal fan of his, who agrees to tell him his side of the story in exchange for writing lessons.
Those that are unfamiliar with the actual events True Story is based on, the real life Michael Finkel was fired from the New York Times back in 2001 when it was discovered he created composite characters for his story on the African slave trade (his dismissal received nowhere the national attention that fellow NYT colleague Jayson Blair received for his plagiarism scandal). His communication with Christian Longo began the following year. While it doesn’t scream headline story, True Story still could be a smart and thought-provoking film in the right hands.
But what we get here is far from compelling.
It’s unfortunate ’cause there is some intrigue to Finkel and Longo’s story. First-time feature film director Rupert Goold gets three talented performers to work with, and to his credit he does establish an effective atmosphere that fits the true-crime mold, sharply contrasting the bleak and grey mood of Finkel’s private life to the bright and sanitized shots of the prison interviews. However, Goold squanders an opportunity to put together a compelling narrative and does very little to spark any interest in the actual story.
It’s not that I was looking for The Fugitive here. There’s a low-key, understated tone that fits the mood just fine, but the problem here is that Goold doesn’t make much of an effort in convincing the viewers Longo may or may not be innocent. There’s not a second shown where we’re not thinking he’s guilty as sin, which in turn makes it hard for us to sympathize with Finkel trying to right the wrongs of his past when he’s so easily fooled.
Oddly enough, though, both Jonah Hill and James Franco are engaging onscreen together. Obviously, it’s hard to see these two with each other and not think of comedies like This Is the End, but Franco’s proven his talent as a dramatic actor years before that film, and Hill’s matured much as an actor over the past five years following his revelatory performance in Moneyball. True Story’s script does them no favors, but I admit it was enjoyable watching a more serious back and forth between them, and despite the mediocre material, they are able to elevate their scenes together.
The lovely Felicity Jones, on the other hand, is a different story. Goold’s most egregious crime is wasting Jones in a superfluous role as Finkel’s wife. It’s unnecessary to put any focus at all on the character, and it’s most certainly unnecessary to have a talented, Oscar-nominated actress play such a thankless part. Goold must’ve recognized that as well, which would explain his attempt to remedy it by making it seem that Jill’s in danger, particularly during a “suspenseful” phone conversation between her and Longo. Striking even more of a false note is her nonsensical, climactic visit with Longo where she tells him off as the murderer she knows he truly is. I get that it’s purpose is to heighten the dramatic tension, but there’s no need for it all, and it only detracts from Finkel and Longo’s relationship.
Both James Franco and Jonah Hill are talented enough to make do with the little they have to work with, but despite their solid pairing, True Story overall misses the mark with an underwhelming retelling of an actual true story that could’ve made for an fascinating drama. Not that it’s without its inspired moments; it’s just not as compelling as the story and talent involved should’ve made it.
I give True Story a C (★★½).
Review source: http://silverscreenfanatic.com/2015/04/23/true-story/