Michael Finkel’s journalism career, torpedoed by a partly fabricated story, had just bottomed out when a phone call came asking why a man accused of murdering his wife and three children in Oregon was identifying himself "Mike Finkel, New York Times."
That was the identification Christian Longo gave the FBI when they arrested him in Mexico in February 2002 for the four Oregon homicides. The timing was, in a strange way, fortuitous for Finkel. His string of New York Times Magazine covers had come to an abrupt and scandalous end when it was discovered that his piece on Ivory Coast cocoa plantations invented a composite character.
Finkel, nursing his wounds back at his Montana home, wrote to Longo in prison while he awaited trial: "At the same time that you were using my name, I lost my own." Their resulting meetings quickly led to a 2005 book, partly about Longo, partly a mea culpa for Finkel. Now it’s a movie starring Jonah Hill as Finkel and James Franco as Longo.
It’s not the bromance you may have been expecting between the two, but it’s a bromance nevertheless.
"True Story" has its issues — neither Franco nor Hill, talented as they are, are suited to their parts — but its biggest problem is at its heart. In grafting Finkel’s self-serving story of career revival onto a grisly tragedy, "True Story," though handsomely made, is entirely misguided. When the final credits dramatically inform us that Finkel never again wrote for the Times, the movie has laughably overestimated our sympathies for the disgraced reporter’s resume.
"True Story," the feature debut of British theater director Rupert Goold, was clearly conceived as a way to play with truth versus fiction in storytelling (a favorite topic of Franco’s). The film is its own dramatization of real events, of course, too.
Finkel’s downfall is caused by a desire to use the techniques of fiction for nonfiction. Longo, a fan of the reporter, says he’ll meet with Finkel exclusively on the condition that he teaches him how to write.
So at the center of the film, which Goold co-wrote with David Kajganich, are the conversations between the two. A friendship develops and there’s apparent chemistry between the two stars, but the kind of menacing tension the film needs is missing. A comedy routine between the smirking Franco and the alert, usually combustible Hill seems to always be lurking just off camera.
As the two get closer, an underused Felicity Jones, as Finkel’s wife, looks on warily. Oddly, their talks don’t lead to a deeper understanding of Longo’s evil, but a kind of mystery at the sudden wrong directions people can take. Longo insists he’s been "decent and regular 92.88 percent of the time."
But any depth is prevented by the focus on Finkel’s redemption. When a tearful relative of Longo’s wife chastises Finkel outside the courtroom for telling the wrong person’s story, she’s half right.