True Story

Posted on April 16, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015

A reporter in disgrace for fabricating details of a story sits across the table from an orange-jumpsuited prisoner, accused of murdering his wife and three children. They have more in common than either of them expected. They are both outcasts. They are both unable or unwilling to explain their actions.

And they both used the name Michael Finkel. The reporter was given that name at birth and it appeared on the byline of his stories in the New York Times Magazine, including the one that cost him his job and his reputation. The man who murdered his family used that name when he fled to Mexico to escape capture. The real Michael Finkel, in seclusion at his home in Montana following his humiliating dismissal, got a phone call when the murderer was arrested, asking him for comment. With nothing else to do, and with the thought that this might be the kind of big story that get him back to a job in journalism, the real Michael Finkel, or as real as sometime just fired for lying can be (Jonah Hill), drove to Oregon to visit the man who was accused of killing his family. His real name, by the way, was Chris Longo (James Franco).

Co-writer/director Rupert Goold has a lot of ideas to explore in this film, and some work much better than others. The focus should be on the parallels between the two men, what links them, the ways they tried to use each other, and the resentments and differences that separate them.  But Goold wastes Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) as Finkel’s girlfriend, with distracting diversions like an ominous shot of her running (for exercise) through the woods. She does as well as possible with a scene where her character confronts Longo, but it is artificial and stagey.

Franco perfectly captures the superficial charm that occasionally slips to reveal fierce underlying anger and self-justification. Hill is a bit out of his depth, or more likely the Finkel character is underwritten. We should be able to see his anger and self-justification, too. And he is lost in the scene where he is grappling with a moral dilemma or trying to consider the rights of anyone but himself.  He is better at showing us Finkel’s arrogance and his need for approval. When Longo says he took Finkel’s name because he was a fan, Finkel is unabashedly complimented. After his humiliating dismissal, he gravitates toward approval like a moth toward a flame. And we know how that turns out.

The ironic title reminds us that we can never really know the true story; there are always too many conflicting versions, too much that is just unknowable. And yet the difference between Finkel, who violated the most fundamental principles of journalism by combining the details of the Africans he met to tell it as a story about one individual, and the movie of his own story is that fiction is supposed to convey larger truths. It is not at all clear that this one does.

Parents should know that this film concerns the murder of a wife and children. There are some disturbing and grisly images, as well as child slavery and discussion of beatings, deception, some strong language, and drinking.

Family discussion: Why did Jill visit Chris? How did Chris and Mike try to con one another and who was most successful?

If you like this, try: “Capote” and “The Jinx” and Finkel’s book, Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

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Based on a book Based on a true story Crime Drama