True Story ought to fit snugly in to a pop culture landscape that, all of a sudden, seems quite taken with true crime. Before Sarah Koenig meandered, sometimes aimlessly, through the details of a case against convicted murderer Adnan Sayed on the addictive podcast Serial, former New York Times reporter Michael Finkel was sucked in to the orbit of accused murderer Christian Longo.
Longo's alleged crimes are horrific. As the film opens, his wife and three young children are pulled from the ocean in Oregon, his wife Mary Jane and youngest daughter Madison brutally beaten and stuffed in to suitcases before they were dumped in to the water.
Finkel's initial involvement, on the other hand, is quite unwitting -- not the result of journalistic doggedness, but rather Longo's use of his counterpart's name just before he is apprehended by the authorities in Mexico. It's a macabre stroke of good fortune for Finkel, who has just been fired by the Times for fabrications unearthed in a cover story of his. Here is Finkel's chance to play Truman Capote, to give voice to a true pariah and to resurrect his career along the way.
"Everyone deserves a chance to tell their story," Finkel says to another reporter early on in the film.
This is either hubris or journalistic idealism taken to its logical extreme. The film takes a pretty clear side, but is open-ended enough to let you feel otherwise with a relative amount of comfort.
Jonah Hill and James Franco are tapped by first-time director Rupert Goold to bring this story to life, Hill playing the rabid, neurotic Finkel trying to recover a reputation that may be irretrievable and Franco playing the creepy, charismatic Longo. In agreeing to talk to Finkel, he claims he is just trying to tell his side of the story — to get at some mysterious larger truth not discoverable through the case files.
Despite the grisly details of the case, the notion that something else — really, anything — happened with Longo and his family is one Finkel is eager to entertain. The disgrace of his dismissal from the Times has not dampened his desire to tell unbelievable stories. In fact, a me-against-the-world drive in the wake of his embarrassment fuels his growing excitement each time he meets with Longo and feels closer to something big.
True Story hinges almost entirely on the relationship between Finkel and Longo. It is not particularly well-written or clever, but it is engrossing. What does Finkel see in Longo? Why did Longo handpick Finkel of all people? Could Longo possibly be innocent?
Hill and Franco have been together on movie sets before, and though they’ve never shared the screen for a story like this, their chemistry certainly pays off. Goold often strips the film down to its barest elements when Hill and Franco are interacting — cutting from one tight closeup to another against the antiseptic white background of the visiting room at the prison where Longo is being held. Then it is back to the chaos of Finkel’s personal life — the cabin in Montana he shares with his girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones), the clutter of notes and drawings — some his, some Longo’s — the uncertainty of his professional and personal life.
As its title suggests, this is a story about truth. It is also a story about stories, though, a fact that you might miss if you get wrapped up in Finkel’s quest to reclaim his good name or in the enigmatic Longo, a man accused of horrific crimes, but somehow calm enough to seem either heavily sedated or peaceful and enlightened.
Goold tries to pack too much else in to this story — Jones’ screen time is almost entirely a waste, save for one big moment when she comes face to face with Longo — but in the numerous moments where he pares everything down and leaves matters to Hill and Franco, it sizzles.
How does a journalist reconcile epistemic truth and great storytelling when they don’t align — perfectly, or at all? What are the implications for choosing one over the other? Does everyone really deserve to tell their side of the story, as Hill’s character insists?
True Story has lessons that are easily applied to the now-discredited Rolling Stonearticle “A Rape on Campus” and dabbles in precisely the same territory as Serial (especially the final few episodes), wondering aloud what we can ever really know for certain. It is not as exceptional as Sarah Koenig at her best, but it has something new and different to contribute to the conversation for sure.