Interview with an accused murderer: Thanks to numerous missteps, the based-on-a-true-story movie ‘True Story’ falls flat

April 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 24, 2015

About a third of the way into the new movie True Story, there’s a short but eerie scene in which journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) asks his girlfriend, Jill Barker (Felicity Jones), to look at a pair of manuscripts.

One is a book of notes Finkel took during his most recent reporting trip, a journey to Africa. The other is a 40-page letter, written by an accused murdered named Christian Longo (James Franco), which recounts much of his life, including the aftermath of the vicious slayings with which he is accused.

Finkel recorded his observations in a notebook using a pen, while Longo put pencil to legal paper. And yet both men have interrupted their fields of verbiage with doodles. The two very different texts are undeniably, and uncannily, similar.

The effect is eerie. Sadly, director-screenwriter Rupert Goold and scripting partner David Kajganich never really tie this short but unnerving scene into the rest of the film. The failure is emblematic: This is one of several effective but isolated moments that hint at the better movie that True Story could have been but isn’t.

The film, an adaptation of a 2005 memoir by the same title, begins with Finkel’s editors discovering that he evidently fabricated part of a 2001 New York Times Magazine story about enslaved African youths. As the movie tells it, a few short days after Finkel has departed the newspaper in disgrace, he learns that a fugitive murder suspect recently captured in Mexico had been using the journalist’s identity as a cover. Finkel is startled by the disclosure, especially since he’s never heard of the other man, who is, of course, Longo.

Finkel can’t sell any stories to editors, even ones he’s known and worked with for years, so he travels to Oregon. There, he learns about Longo’s alleged crimes, which are completely horrifying. His alleged victims were his wife and three young children; their waterlogged bodies were found in horribly contorted positions, and one of the girls drowned in an especially nightmarish way.

Finkel arranges a jail meeting with Longo, who’s declined interviews with reporters. The inmate confesses to having borrowed the reporter’s identity because he’d long admired Finkel’s work. Longo offers to give Finkel exclusive interviews on two conditions: That he not reveal the contents of their conversation until the murder trial ends and that he teach Longo how to write.

Finkel agrees readily, and thus begins an unlikely relationship. It’s one that many of the secondary characters in True Story view warily — much more so, it seems, than either Finkel or Longo.

The main voice of skepticism is Barker, who’s played by Felicity Jones. (Her character’s attraction to the oily Finkel in this movie is harder to understand than that of her character to the brilliant Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, another movie that was adapted from a memoir.) Barker quietly freaks out in another one of the movie’s effective scenes, in which she has a short but unnerving phone conversation with Longo. Later, she has an angry confrontation with the man. It’s a powerful scene but one that, I inadvertently learned before watching True Story, was invented for dramatic purposes.

I wish True Story had more such attention-grabbing moments. Instead, the movie is more tepid than transfixing. That’s partly because neither Hill nor Franco generate much charisma in their roles and partly because Goold and Kajganich fail to flesh out their characters.

I was never sure whether Finkel was truly passionate about the truth or just a self-serving opportunist who tends to mouth smug bromides. The movie does a slightly better job plumbing Longo’s depths, eventually resolving the question of whether he is a master manipulator or the victim of very unfortunate circumstances. But there just doesn’t seem to be much at stake, partly because I couldn’t care less whether Finkel’s book about Longo’s case was published. (I knew, of course, that it ultimately was.)

The movie suggests that Finkel’s relationship with Barker is threatened by his fascination with Longo, but that didn’t create much tension because I wasn’t sure he really deserved Barker’s (or anyone’s) love and affection. Only late in the movie does the script seriously engage the question of how the reporter’s cozy relationship with Longo might affect Finkel’s soul. By then, unfortunately, the issue seems like an afterthought.

It’s frustrating, because there are so many reasons why True Story could and should have woven a riveting narrative. The underlying story is intriguing, the cast is competent and the director and his writing partner are hardly novices. While this is Goold’s first movie outing, he’s directed two TV adaptations of Shakespeare dramas, and he cowrote the screenplay for one of these.

Kajganich scripted two previous horror films: The Invasionthe 2007 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and Blood Creek, an original story about a Nazi abomination that lurks in modern-day West Virginia. Kajganich also has three scripts in production, all of which might have some potential: The psycho-sexual thriller A Bigger Splash, a remake of Stephen King’s It, and an adaptation of Dan Simmons’s The Terror. (Simmons’s novel, which I absolutely loved, puts a supernatural spin on the story of a real-life 19th-century Arctic expedition gone awry.)

And yet True Story is marred by numerous clichés. One character — a fellow reporter, no less! — suggests to Finkel that maybe not everyone’s story is worth telling. When Finkel introduces Longo to the concept of hidden acknowledgements, or Easter eggs (they’re called winks in the movie), Longo is unreasonably taken by the idea. The defendant is also struck by Finkel’s hackneyed suggestions that two negatives don’t make a positive and that the death of a person is perfectly symbolized by consigning a doll to a watery grave.

Granted, these ideas resurface in interesting ways late in the movie. But their introduction and initial use is so grating and clumsy that it undercuts the effect. Midway through the picture, there’s a scene in which Finkel and Longo are bonding, and the movie presents it in such a straightforward and uncomplicated way that I had to wonder whether anyone involved in True Story had any self-awareness whatsoever.

I may end up reading Finkel’s memoir because, as mentioned, I think the underlying story is intriguing; I’m also curious about his career, including the apparently self-inflicted debacle that ended his reporting at The New York Times. But unfortunately, like that eerie scene in which Finkel and Barker gaze at the two stylistically similar documents, the intriguing aspects of the cinematic True Story mostly just seem to be squandered.

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