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"True Story" Movie Review: 4 out of 5

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"True Story" Movie Review: 4 out of 5

By Don Gibble

The tale of a disgraced journalist who gets the scoop on a potentially career-reviving story and desperately wants to make it work, Rupert Goold’s “True Story” is involving but surprisingly calm, going for stretches without seeming to care whether what he’s reporting is an expose or a cover-up. Instead, the focus is on the relationship between the scribe (Jonah Hill) and his subject (James Franco), who stands accused of killing his wife and three children; their increasing but precarious intimacy recalls the courtship at the heart of “Capote” without ever approaching its dramatic mixture of empathy and self-interested manipulation.

Based on the memoir by former New York Times reporter Michael Finkel, the film opens as he’s being busted. After penning celebrated stories from dangerous locales for the paper’s magazine, Finkel is found to have passed off a composite character as real in a report on modern slavery in Africa. He’s fired and publicly exposed, then flees to his Montana home. There, wife Jill (Felicity Jones) comforts him as he tries, unsuccessfully, to pitch stories to other publications.

Then he learns that Mike Finkel is not just a journalistic sinner but an accused murderer. A man in Oregon, Christian Longo, had been using his name in an attempt to elude authorities, who nevertheless caught him in Mexico. Smelling a juicy feature that only he is qualified to write, he arranges to meet Longo in jail.

The two men strike a bargain that will unsettle many around them: Longo will tell the truth about events to Finkel alone, but only if he delays publication until after the trial and gives the aspiring author writing lessons. Soon, Finkel has sold a book pitch and is seeing his subject as a kind of spiritual twin. A script heavy with two-handed dialogue scenes would seem dangerous for a theater director making his first film, but Goold’s work never feels stagey; a smart and varied visual sense opens up even settings as basic as a jail’s visiting room. 

But what happens in that room isn’t as convincing as might be expected from these actors. With heavy eyelids and resigned sighs, Franco’s Longo projects neither the urgency of the wrongly accused nor the slipperiness  of a con man. Hill’s Finkel talks a good game, digging up facts Longo doesn’t expect to confront and promising to pick apart any story he’s given, but his eyes don’t reveal the smarts of a man capable of plying reluctant interviewees in places like Haiti and Gaza.

The relationship makes more sense, perversely, when the two are apart. Longo writes epic letters that Finkel devours. As the journalist sinks into his work, his home life predictably suffers. Two interactions between Longo and Finkel’s wife may be based on real events, but they play like the inventions of filmmakers hoping to introduce a hint of menace and to give a talented actress something to do beyond playing piano and taking baths while her husband ignores her in his study.

Viewers who know the story’s conclusion may have a hard time finding drama in Longo’s trial, but others should view it as the film’s highlight even if they’ve already guessed the nature of the secrets he has kept throughout his imprisonment. We’re left with the impression that the defendant, his prosecutors and even a woman who meets him just once understand Christian Longo better than the man hired to write his story. 

True Story” suggests that Finkel doesn’t know himself all that well either. A hit at the Sundance film festival, this is a movie you should see at the theater.