“True Story” fails to come to life

by Chris Sanchez
sanchezch@mnstate.edu

We’ve all seen the tag line “Based on a true story,” but sometimes movies leave me wondering: what qualifies as true?
You would think with a title like “True Story,” that the film in question would be a provocative take on a factual event. The premise itself had promise: In 2001, a freelance journalist, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) wrote an article for the New York Times about a young Malian boy who supposedly sold himself as a slave on a cocoa farm on the Ivory Coast. But after unsubstantiated claims, Finkel was questioned from the Times and he confessed to embellishing details on the slave’s situation. Because of his dishonesty, the Times had to publish an apology and cut ties with Finkel for good.
But before the apology was published, an unexpected call came to Finkel about a man named Christian Longo (James Franco) who had landed on the FBI’s most wanted list for the murder of his wife and three children. Longo was arrested in Mexico and used Finkel’s name and identity. At this point, Finkel felt like this was his chance for redemption, so he decided to cover the story himself and get an interview with Longo.
Over the course of these interviews, Longo and Finkel formed a relationship that was peculiar from the start. As time went by, Longo slowly started to reveal himself to Finkel, including how Finkel’s writing influenced him. But he’s still omitting the details of his murdered wife and kids. Is he guilty? What was his alibi?
This all seems like juicy and engaging material, so why did it end up so dull and labored? What seems like the film was trying to do was an exposé into journalistic ethics and morals and instead the film ends up being a stock crime drama that would’ve been better suited as a prime time special on CNN.
At least this film could’ve been a performance driven two-fer for its two leads, but it doesn’t really excel in that either. It’s nice though, that Hill is continuing his pursuit of smarter roles. After seeing his unexpected turns in “Moneyball” and “Wolf of Wall Street,” it was clear he has more in him then that one-note, obnoxious goon who cemented his career. Hill’s character here is a hard-hitting writer who wants answers, but his journalistic practices are indeed questionable. Why Longo’s Story? And why did he fabricate his previous story? He lacks empathy for us to get really invested in him. Say what you want about Franco, but at least he’s made a name for himself in the industry. Let’s be glad that he toned down his performance here from his painfully unfunny turn in the egregious comedy “The Interview.” For the most part, though, his character here remains an enigma; not being able to really get into his head or understanding why he may or may not have committed the horrific acts that he’s being accused of.
That’s not to say that “True Story” has no redeemable moments. There is a powerful scene that includes Finkel’s wife (the lovely but underused Felicity Jones) at the jail cell confronting Longo about his relationship with Finkel. The film also takes an interesting turn during the Longo trial that those who aren’t familiar with the story may not have seen coming. But that’s not enough to keep “True Story” from becoming flat and trite. I’m sure the actual true story of Finkel and Longo is dense and fascinating. It’s just too bad you won’t find any of that here.

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