By Jude Warne.
For a reviewer, for a journalist, to review and critique a film that champions and practically makes love to the journalist vocation is a uniquely complicated task. Writers believe that the art of writing is of utmost importance, but who knew everyone else did, too?
Rupert Goold’s True Story is based on former New York Times journalist Michael Finkel’s memoir of the same name, via an adaptation by screenwriter David Kajganich. In it, Finkel (Jonah Hill) is a highly acclaimed New York Times journalist (with the framed Times Magazine cover stories up on his wall to prove it) who knowingly fudges some of the facts on his latest cover story to make it sound better. He subsequently gets caught by the Times leadership, is fired and moves back home to desolate nowheresville to live with his fiancée Jill (Felicity Jones). Finkel soon hears that Most-Wanted-man-by-the-FBI Christian Longo (James Franco) has been arrested for murdering his wife and children. This concerns Finkel because during the weeks preceding his capture, Longo used Finkel’s name as an alias. Immensely disturbed and intrigued, Finkel goes to see Longo in prison, and thus begins an ongoing journalist-murderer relationship between the two of them.
Similar to writer Truman Capote’s experience with writing his story-of-a-murder masterwork In Cold Blood (book, 1966; Richard Brooks’ film, 1967), True Story features a strange and intimate psychological affair between a murderer and journalist intent upon playing the role of investigator, immensely concerned with the murderer’s potential innocence or guilt. This relationship trope is presented and analyzed rather well in Janet Malcolm’s 1990 aptly titled study The Journalist and the Murderer, in which the morals of investigative journalists are questioned. Echoes of Capote’s experience are also presented in True Story via the idea of a writer writing a book about an in-process murder case, of which the ending is as-of-then unknown and as such will greatly affect the book’s structure and narrative line. Finkel is also responsible for influencing the case’s twists and turns as well as Longo’s legal approach. Longo may or may not be planning a series of plot twists of his own as his case goes to trial.
When asked why he chose to use Finkel’s name as an alias, Longo says that he wanted to know what it would feel like to be Mike Finkel. He has always been a fan of Finkel’s work he says, even suggesting that he himself had wanted to be a writer at one time. This is reminiscent of Capote’s self-comparisons to murderer Perry Smith in Bennett Miller’s 2005 biopic Capote, in which the two men seem to be two different probability outcomes of the same original person. Longo is a murderer who could have become what Mike became but didn’t. The reason for this divergence of paths is initially presented as mere chance, but we soon realize that it is, of course, much more than that.
Towards the end of True Story, Finkel’s girlfriend Jill, played so subtly, so expertly by Felicity Jones, instigates an interesting confrontation of Longo, visiting him in prison and saying how Finkel can’t learn about himself from Longo, even though he believes them to be similar. They are not similar enough. A writer, Finkel here, is capable of entertaining all sorts of ludicrous, sometimes murderous ideas and notions in his mind. A writer, like a murderer, is imaginative, crafty, cunning and extremely apt at lying; but, just because he is capable of such ideas does not mean that he is inclined to see them through to manifestation. Perhaps this is why he spends so much time writing them down. It is made clear here that our choices define us – not the choices that we are capable of making, but the choices that we ultimately make in the end. There is something decidedly different in the character make-ups of Longo and Perry Smith from those of Mike Finkel and Truman Capote.
One of True Story’s multiple paths is that of the writer’s ego-trip. On so many occasions in the film’s script, various characters spend a great many lines telling Mike that he is a great writer. If only laypeople were as generous with their compliments in real life as they are in this film! Longo even tells Mike that he’s always loved the way Mike wrote in his NY Times Magazine cover pieces. Granted, the camera is quick to show us his many framed cover stories; he is a character, albeit a “true” one, fairly young to be so acclaimed.
This is such a writer’s film, aesthetically strewn with inky letter exchanges and urgent story deadlines – from the concept of writerly ethics in the early established issue of Finkel tampering with the truth in his Times story, to his back-and-forth struggles with his Harper Collins book deal. How then, might we ask, would a non-writer cinemagoer find a way into this story? What would draw him into this film? Perhaps the notion that a writer’s drive for inquiry and discovery reflects a universal desire? After all, the issues that it deals with are fairly narrow ones. Perhaps this narrowness is a strength. True Story tastes vaguely old-fashioned in its straightforward, simple storied narrative. There are not many surprises, there are not many characters, there are no detailed backstories given, Jill and Mike’s relationship is not overly attended to. Mike’s move out to nowheresville to be with Jill and lick his ego’s wounds, following his firing from the Times, is glazed over and made easy when it shouldn’t be. Mike’s character development is only made believable by Jonah Hill’s excellent performance.
By the time True Story is over, we are left asking this question: why is this story being told to us? Why would these high-profile and talented actors, Franco, Hill and Jones want to be part of this project? Is this film merely meant to freak us out, to weird us out with the idea of child-murdering? It seems intended to scare us, forcing us to declare that we would never do these horrendous acts, we are not like Christian Longo, we would not suddenly “snap” and become fatally violent with those we love. This story is being told to us because it is true. It is the kind of story that should be a stretch, plot-wise, the kind of story that should only exist in the realm of fiction; yet, it doesn’t.
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.