True Story

Director: Rupert Goold (2015)

Identity theft, serial killing and untrustworthy journalism make for a mire of mendacity in this chilly courtroom thriller.

It’s based on the memoir of Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), a former New York Times journalist who was sacked for fabricating a story.

He receives a phone call asking for an opinion on homicide suspect Christian Longo (James Franco) who has been caught in Mexico using Finkel’s identity.

Longo is charged with murdering his wife and three daughters and faces the death penalty. As grisly details of the deaths emerge, he paints his family as a victim of harsh economic circumstance.

Sensing a book deal and career resurrection, Finkel interviews Longo in prison and a curious relationship develops based on questionable motives.

Longo is evasive about what happened and emphasises his ordinariness. Finkel equates his own lies to be crimes of a similar magnitude to those of the accused.

Spending a lot of time rubbing his eyes in front of a laptop in a lonely hotel room, Finkel is under pressure from the police, his publisher and his girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones).

Hill, Franco and Jones have each been nominated for an Oscar. Hill in Moneyball (2011) and Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Franco in 127 Hours (2010) and Jones for A Theory Of Everything (2014).

Hill and Franco previously starred together in weak apocalypse comedy This Is The End (2013).

Principal photography on True Story began way back in March 2013 and it was released in the US in April 2015.

With Jones’ Oscar nomination announced in mid-January 2015, it’s tempting to imagine the producers threw in every useable piece of footage they possessed of her to capitalise on her resultant higher profile.

In any case her character Jill spends most of her scenes alone or not interacting with her fellow performers, such as in a courtroom scene where she simply stands and stares.

At other times she plays piano runs in the woods, immerses herself in work and takes baths. It all accentuates her isolation but has no bearing at all on the plot.

Jones and Hill’s characters have little screen time and she has no purpose other than to make Finkel seem a more rounded personality.

Without her – even with her – Finkel is self-absorbed, humourless, arrogant and professionally flawed. We wonder what attracted each to the other and why she stays with him.

It’s not the first film to dramatise a journalist’s attempts to exploit a prisoner for their own ends. Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood (pub. 1966) provided a basis for Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006).

A mournful soundtrack, muted colours, studied editing and a measured pace allows for a focus on strong performances.

But it’s difficult to place your sympathy on either of the wholly unreliable storytellers.

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