True Story (2015)

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Rupert Goold and David Kajganich

The James Franco and Jonah Hill combination has delivered plenty of hits and plenty of laughs throughout the past decade of movie making. Each has also had their time in the spotlight for dramatic performances; Jonah Hill for Moneyball, and James Franco for 127 Hours. However, True Story marks the first time these two Hollywood hits matchup in the same movie for the sake of drama instead of comedy. This alone creates an odd atmosphere of anticipation, leaving me wondering whether they will break out laughing eventually, with the joke on the audience. But for Rupert Goold, making his directorial debut, this film is no laughing matter. And for the real life people this film represents, True Story hits all too close to home.

Living up to its name, True Story is in fact based on a true story, that of former New York Times reporter Michael Finkel and accused killer Christian Longo. Finkel (Jonah Hill) has recently been ousted from his successful New York Times job for partially fabricating a story with the intention of creating a greater impact on his readers. Longo (James Franco) has recently been captured using the alias Michael Finkel, suspected of having killed his wife and three young children. Hearing of the bizarre use of alias, Finkel contacts Longo and the two begin meeting regularly while Longo awaits his trial. Finkel, hoping to regain his journalistic integrity by penning a book on Longo and the case, soon finds Longo may not be as truthful in their meetings as he has been led to believe. Searching for who he is, and who he will become, Finkel finds an eerie and ominous relationship with Christian Longo.

Often what draws me to media consumption is the delivery of a great story. Certainly there are technical aspects that embellish a book or a movie or a television series, but everything hinges on the story. It’s been said ad nauseam (yes, I know ad nauseam is used ad nauseam), but the greatest, and often most unbelievable, stories are true. Christian Longo is a monster, and director Rupert Goold seeks to ask the question “what makes him any different than someone like Michael Finkel?” Perhaps there isn’t that much that separates them, perhaps they aren’t similar at all, but by examining the similarities between the two, their differences, Goold is tapping into a great story and expanding upon it with unique and personal perspective. This alone makes his debut film impressive.

In some ways, the developed obsession of the Christian Longo case by Mike Finkel reminded me of another great crime drama, Zodiac. Zodiac has a substantial leg up in the comparison, with the luxury of an unsolved case to naturally provide a great deal of tension and mystery, but mystery and tension is still a big reason why True Story succeeds. If there was a crutch that befalls Goold’s debut, it would be the setting of the film. Limited by the true story, Goold and his cast of characters are often delegated to the courtroom or prison visitor’s room. Given such a static and unexciting setting, the film leans on the mystery and performances to fuel the interest of the audience. Jonah Hill excels as Mike Finkel, a man looking to self-examine through the examination of a killer. Franco is good as well, but as mentioned before, their chemistry on screen is skewed by my previous comedic experience with the tandem. I could never quite settle into their characters as much as I am sure Goold had intended.

With a great foundation and plus performances from the core cast involved in the film, True Story is a promising debut from Rupert Goold. The psychology toyed with throughout brings to the surface some interesting self-reflective questions for Finkel on what is real, and what is truth. Finkel, as a journalist, is continually seeking the truth. As a “recovering liar”, he is tested by the wit and story of Longo and his ability to twist the truth into something different altogether. The film could have used a little more tension, whether this is an issue with lackluster writing, a less than inspired score, or the absence of a truly thrilling scene, but the elements that are delivered are done so with conviction. I would love to research this true story a little further, and see just how far down the rabbit hole the truth has gone.

*** – Good

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