True Story takes a fascinating premise and does its best to drown it through clumsy story-telling and a lack of clear purpose. The film, which really is based on a true story, begins with two men on opposite sides of the world introducing themselves as Michael Finkel from the New York Times. One, played by James Franco, is chatting up a backpacker at a Mexican church, while Jonah Hill’s Finkel is on-location in Africa uncovering the plight of the cocoa farmer.
The former is promptly arrested for murdering his entire family, while the latter – and, it turns out, genuine Finkel – is fired for playing fast and loose with facts in his latest article. It’s a bad day to be Michael Finkel.
Jonah Hill’s character leaves New York in shame, only later hearing about the accused man, Christian Longo, using his identity. He approaches him for an interview, which is granted, and the two become bros, sharing breezy jokes and long-suppressed memories that Finkel would never share with his increasingly alienated girlfriend. Is his relationship with Longo a cathartic return to journalistic integrity, or is he selfishly using the profile of a malefic human being in an attempt to rebuild his career?
A book deal (in real life it’s called Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa) is secured, despite Longo refusing to say whether or not he committed the murders (he suggests he may be innocent but generally dances around the subject). In exchange for the exclusive, Finkel must teach Longo to write like a proper journalist. What’s a man who’s about to face a major trial going to do with a load of freshly-learned rhetorical skills? The signposts are so clear and the “reveal” so ham-fisted – HE’S USING MY WORDS! – that it drains the tension that is, by and large, skillfully built up.
Franco’s laconic Longo is just the right combination of chilling and charming, while Hill does a good job of making Finkel seem like a good guy who made a terrible mistake. Their scenes together don’t exactly crackle, but they’re engaging enough. It’s no surprise that the best elements of the film involve two men in a static location, given that direction comes from acclaimed British theatre director Richard Goold (Enron, American Psycho, Made in Dagenham), here making his film debut.
It’s when Franco and Hill are off screen that things fall apart. The proceedings are punctuated by a series of mawkish, soft-focus flash-backs – a teddy-bear falling in slow-motion, a mother and her children, filmed from below, in a field of flowers – that have no business being in a film that so desperately wants to appear logical and gritty.
The central theme – the limits of trust and the ease in which it can be destroyed – is a fascinating one. But True Story is too eager to hold its audience’s hand, carefully guiding them through the correct emotional responses. It’s a shame: the true story would have been enough.
First published in City A.M.