True Story Review

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Posted April 19, 2015 by Eduardo Gueiros in Movies

Directed by: Rupert Goold
Written by: Rupert Goold, David Kajganich, Michael Finkel (memoirs)
Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, & Felicity Jones
Released: 17th April 2015

 

Truth is a universal concept. We inherently want exposure to it, yet we occasionally find ourselves dissatisfied with its substance, despite the fact that we typically prefer it over its alternative. True Story, based on the memoirs of New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, explores this conflict, and brings to light questions regarding the moral complications that arise around ‘truth.’

The opening scene in the film transitions from heartwarming to heartbreaking in only a few seconds. We see a little girl curled up in an open suitcase on a bed, as a teddy bear drops in beside her. The suitcase then closes, however, and consequently splashes into a body of water. No explanation, just the tragedy of the scene. If you didn’t already know, this is the central plot point in the movie, one that brings ‘truth,’ or the quest to find it, into focus.

In the subsequent scenes we are introduced to two characters: Michael Finkel, and… Michael Finkel. One of these (Jonah Hill) is in Africa doing research for an article regarding the horrible conditions found on cocoa plantations, while the other (James Franco) is in Mexico wandering through a church. This duplicity is quickly resolved, however, as it is revealed that Franco’s character is actually named Christian Longo, a man accused of drowning his wife and three children.

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Finkel is a celebrated New York Times writer whose articles have frequently featured on the cover of the prestigious publication’s magazines. However, the veracity of his latest article is brought into question when Finkel is accused of combining the tragic accounts of many plantation workers into a story about a sole individual. He is consequently ostracized by the journalistic community for betraying the truth. But his fruitless search for work is quickly forgotten when he receives a phone call informing him of the murder suspect who claimed to be “Mike Finkel of the New York Times” during his arrest in Mexico. Curious, as to why he, specifically was chosen, Finkel writes Longo a letter that leads to their first encounter.

The resulting plot delicately examines these two characters, whose interactions, struggles, and decisions are the focus of the narrative. Given the inclusion of elements such as murder and journalism, many viewers might watch this film expecting a thriller. Don’t. True Story is a character story, which details the unique circumstances surrounding two complex individuals who both struggle with their individual relationships with the concept of ‘truth,’ and all its variations. In their initial interactions, Longo claims to be a life-long fan of Finkel’s work, and holds much respect for the journalist who stands up for those who don’t have voices. The way in which Longo understands Finkel’s motivations – after all, the journalist claimed that his article was meant to give a stronger voice to the real issues faced in Africa – helps shape the tone of their relationship: one somberly shrouded in mystery.

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Both characters are at odds with the truth; one is being accused of murder, and the other of publishing an exaggeration.  While the magnitude of these situations is drastically apart, we start to see similarities between the two men as we get to know them better.  The intrigue in their relationship lies in the fact that Finkel is planning to write a book about the murder suspect and discover if he’s guilty, while Longo is hoping to understand Finkel better as a person(in addition to improving his “mastery of words”).  The exploration between these two individuals is the linchpin of the story, as we are exposed to the detailed ways they each think about and interact with the circumstances surrounding them, at the center of which we find truth.

James Franco plays the role of Christian Longo wonderfully. His characteristic squinted smirk serves him well in this role, as he is able to use it to emphasize the hint of creepiness that surrounds his character. The scene in which his trial finally takes place helps further his persona, as the seemingly-friendly-but-still-somehow-menacing Longo recounts the events of the night in question to the jury; his version of the truth.  On the other hand, Jonah Hill’s performance fluctuates a little more. Hill doesn’t seem to ever truly get comfortable as Finkel, and his representation of the journalist/author is inconsistent throughout the film. Hill is neither bad nor fantastic; instead he is merely good in a role that could have added more depth to the already fascinating interactions we see. Finally, Felicity Jones – featured as Finkel’s girlfriend – plays a wonderful role not on as a character, but as the actress representing it. While she isn’t as prominently featured as the two male leads, Jones is able to add substance to the story through her performance as a loving, confused, and ultimately worried girlfriend. Her convincing performance helps Jill elevate the Mike Finkel character, as her actions and reactions often tell us more about the confused writer than anything he does.

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The pace of True Story is slow. But this helps accentuate the tone surrounding the mysterious circumstances of the plot, as well as the exploration of Finkel and Longo’s characters. The tragic nature of the crime at the center of the story gives the film an unshakably eerie feel, one that requires this type of a deliberate and detailed pace to appropriately combine plot progression and character exploration. Director Rupert Goold and his fellow screenwriter, David Kajganich, combine these elements interestingly, in such a way that the exploration of the characters actually dictates the film. While the murders hover over everything we experience and shape the tone of the plot as a whole, this doesn’t take away the true focus of the script: the characters themselves. The ending, however, comes quite suddenly. It felt as though the transition between acts within the movie could have been smoothed out a little further, with less time spent in some areas so that the transition into the final act could be given room to grow more gradually. That being said, the ending was interesting in that it leaves the audience with a lot to ponder and analyze in terms of the character relationships and as well as each of their relationships with ‘truth’, while also providing a concrete and unambiguous conclusion to the actual plot.

True Story is put together in an incredibly clever way. The pace and tone are appropriate for the purpose of the film, and the performances for the most part help tell the story of these two similar-yet-different men in engaging and artful way. It was enjoyable to see Franco perform well in a serious role, and the chemistry he shares with Jonah Hill – stemming from their real-life friendship – helped elevate their scenes together. While the transition into the final act could have been better, the movie as a whole is highly enjoyable since it provides both a suspenseful story, and a set of interesting character issues that will leave you thinking about the concept of truth and all its variations, as well as your own relationship with it.


About the Author

Eduardo Gueiros