TRUE STORY (2015, directed by Rupert Goold, 100 minutes, USA)
BY COLE NOWLIN True story: Jonah Hill and James Franco co-star in a movie without a single dick-joke, bro-hug, or bong rip. Instead of phallic digressions, there is tense dialogue and a relentless search for truth. If you are looking for laughs, sit this one out, otherwise you will be hard pressed to find a truly comedic moment.
Instead, True Story grapples with big ideas about identity, authenticity, and situational ethics. Jonah Hill plays Michael Finkel, a promising journalist for the New York Times who goes from Pulitzer hopeful to has-been when it is revealed that he played fast and loose with the facts when writing a big career-making story. Just as he is finding out what it feels like to be the journalistic equivalent of a leper, he gets the call that offers him a shot at career redemption. Christian Longo, one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives has hijacked Finkel’s identity while on the run.
Longo, played by an eerily even and calm James Franco, was arrested outside of Cancun in 2002 for the murder of his wife and three children. When he was apprehended, he claimed to authorities he was “Mike Finkel from the New York Times.” Turns out, Longo was an admirer of Finkel’s writing. Sensing that the story of Longo’s crime and and identity theft could be his ticket back to the Times, Finkel grabs it with both hands. He conducts a series of interviews Longo while he is awaiting his trial, and the two develop a complex, disturbing relationship.
The film maintains a laser-like focus on the relationship between Finkel and Longo and, as expected, Hill and Franco combine well. The parallels between the two are uncanny, and raise questions about truth, lies, shame, journalism, and friendship. The film never really provides definitive answers to these questions, but then again the film is a true story, after all. True stories tend not be black and white and tidy — something Finkel struggles with. Hill turns in a convincing performance as the tortured, ethically-confused Finkel, and Franco plays the most James Franco-esque, nonchalant murderer in the history of film. He is effectively an anti-murderer, so calm and collected that he almost transcends creepy, and comes across as painfully normal and bland. The operative word in that last sentence is almost. True Story bites off more than it can chew, but it nobly grapples with some pretty hefty issues, and is especially relevant considering the Rolling Stone’s recent retraction of the University of Virginia rape story and the Brian Williams exaggerated Iraq War derring do. Message: If it sounds too good (or bad) to be true, it probably isn’t.