True Story opens on a teddy bear falling ever so slowly into a packed suitcase. It’s not until your eyes have adjusted to the image that you realize the body of a child is among the clothes. Your logic wants to assume the child may be playing a game with a parent. But the child doesn’t stir at all when the teddy bear lands on the her head, and then there’s a hand closing the zipper of the suitcase. Your logic has to assume the worst now, particularly when the next shot shows the suitcase being discarded in a body of water.
The next scene shows a New York Times journalist, Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), shvitzing in the heat of Africa while interviewing several young boys about their mistreatment, and possible slavery, at a cocoa plant in Mali. The details are hard to come by, even through an interpreter, and it takes Finkel flashing his ID for reassurance and bribing the boys with $10 in US dollars for them to be forthright with their information.
Then the movie switches continents, showing a different man (James Franco) lighting fake candles in a Mexican church and making friends with a blonde German tourist. She asks him his name. He tells her it’s Mike Finkel. Another long, slow shot shows the fake Finkel at a hotel room balcony, blonde German tourist now naked and asleep on the bed. As he’s quietly gazing upon the street below, a police car arrives and heads toward his building. There’s a shot of the fake Finkel, looking spooked yet unsurprised.
Then the title shot: TRUE STORY.
This opening sequence introduced a movie I wanted to see. The sequence was subtle in tone while being explicit in setting up the story. Its imagery was soft and beautiful. But after the title is shown, the movie begins an unfortunate, gradual, steady decline.
We learn that real Finkel, a cocky and talented young professional, wrote his piece on the Mali cocoa plantations by combining the stories of several boys he interviewed. This disingenuous act led to his firing at the New York Times, and Finkel’s backdrop goes from sexy, bustling NYC to snowy, desolate Montana. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him. Of course what he did was wrong, but you can imagine yourself doing the same in his position. It’s easy to find duplicitous ways around things when trying to get what you want.
We then learn that fake Finkel’s real name is Christian Longo, a man who stands accused of murdering his wife and three children. Finkel finds out about Longo using his name, and in short order learns his story, meets him and recognizes an opportunity to rebuild his career: Longo wants Finkel, and only Finkel, to write his side of the story. There’s a brightness in Finkel’s eyes. An exclusive. In return, Longo asks for him to tell the truth… and for writing tips. Without thinking twice, Finkel agrees. But by agreeing to write Longo’s story as he tells it, Finkel is already ignoring the actual truth. Even more so after Harper Collins agrees to publish his findings.
Longo’s soft spoken and “aw shucks” nature make Finkel feel superior almost instantly. He sees himself in Longo, a man he might’ve been if he really let his judgement go, and is relatively easy on him. Finkel does confront him with lapses in logic or questionable details in his story, and once even asks him flat out if he did it, but it’s almost as though he didn’t want to know the real truth. His motives are blinding him. While his crusade is 100%-truth-telling after the Mali incident, it seems that he is afraid that if he pushes Longo too hard he’ll lose the opportunity to have his book published and regain his spot among journalistic elite. His ego is getting the better of him again and his crusade is taking a back seat.
This conflict, both internal and external, seems like it’d make for a gripping film. In reality, it’s obvious that True Story wants to be at thriller, but it lacks the suspense and tautness to hold these scenes together. It did try. Between the visual dissection of Longo’s foreboding memoir, the quick cuts of a ferocious Finkel at work pieceing together the clues, and lots of dark shots showing Finkel’s wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), silently slinking around corners of the house… boy, did it ever try. But the interview scenes were too long and too devoid of crime solving substance to sustain dramatic tension. You assume that Finkel will eventually unearth the secret that will be revelatory to the truth, but it never comes. Instead there’s a trial, in which Longo tells his whole story (albeit fabricated, but only slightly) in what was likely a five page monologue and the film comes to a rolling stop, about twenty minutes before it’s actually over. In contrast to the subtlety of the opening sequence, the end of the movie lays everything out for you. And not in an exciting, climactic, M. Night Shyamalan way (shut up, you know you liked Signs) where suddenly everything makes sense. Longo gives you no satisfying reason for his murderous rampage. He was just desperate.
The real shame in True Story is that the film did little to bolster the talent of Jonah Hill and James Franco, who were both excellent. Hill’s got the earnest, everyman look here and it’s remarkably easy to believe his character’s conflicting motives. Franco’s got that face that can morph into your best friend then to a dangerous sociopath within seconds, and he plays that well. One of the movie’s most jarring moments is after the trial, when Longo glances over at Finkel, shrugs and then winks at him with the most sinister grin this side of American Horror Story. It’s fun to see these two friends work dramatically off each other, as we’re most used to them doing comedically. Hell, it was less than a year ago they were seen together in what I believe to be one of the best comedies of 2014.
And poor Felicity Jones. Her whole function in this movie was to look disapprovingly at her husband’s work on this book. She didn’t confront him with her concerns on his intense involvement in Longo. Her only real moment was a monologue given to Longo, which, while a nice piece of writing, ultimately accomplished nothing.
True Story is indeed what it claims to be. It’s based off of the novel that the real-life Finkel wrote (also called True Story). After last winter’s award season biopic frenzy, it became obvious that telling a true story is not enough to make a good movie. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but trying to shove that truth back into a fabricated format (i.e. a movie!) does not often work on its own. The fault of a lot of biopics is that they rest too heavily on the events as they happened and do not present an original stance with which to view the film. One thing to say for True Story is that it at least tried to present its source material with some dramatic weight. The movie becomes one about ego and deception. Both Finkel and Longo each, in their own ways, allowed their ambition and drive for something more to overtake their better judgement.
I don’t know how much alike the film is to the book, but True Story feels too much like someone’s hypothesis on the events that occurred; like an exercise in a playwriting class I took once where you take a still photograph and write about what’s happening within the picture. Finkel’s story is a compelling one, but the film version took a very long time to ultimately say not much at all. It’s hard not to wonder if True Story could have been better, if only they changed the ending.