Murky Motivations

True Story (2015)

Rating: 5.5/10

For all intents and purposes, True Story (which, as you may have guessed, is based on a true story) is a chronicle of two men getting to know one another. Christian Longo (James Franco) and Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) spend hours together simply having conversations and completing psychological exercises. When they aren’t communicating face-to-face, Longo and Finkel still find ways to talk and share via phone calls and letters. The hook? Longo is imprisoned for the murder of his wife and three children, while Finkel is a disgraced journalist who seems to have happened upon a huge exclusive story.

I’ll backtrack a bit. True Story opens with Finkel in Africa as he conducts interviews to solidify a feature he is writing on cocoa plantation slavery. Once the story hits Finkel’s paper, The New York Times, it becomes clear that he has falsified elements of his work in order for it to hit home harder. Finkel is dismissed from his duties, and he immediately has difficulty finding work despite his previous dependability and success.

Perhaps the well would have remained dry for Finkel had it not been for Christian Longo, who is tracked down days after the mass-murdering of his family and identifies himself to police not by his own name, but by Finkel’s. The authorities are greatly baffled by this occurrence, so Finkel is contacted and decides he’d like to talk with Longo face-to-face to understand why his name came into play.

The majority of True Story, as I alluded to above, consists of these two fellas talking it out with one another. Finkel wants to know who Longo is and whether or not he truly committed the brutal, unthinkable crimes of which he has been accused. As for what Longo wants, it’s very frequently hard to tell. The goal of the film seems to at least partially lie in making us seek out what Longo wants to achieve from his interactions with Finkel. If you take the man at his word, his primary concern is to become better at expressing himself through the written word, and he believes Finkel can help.

I’m an absolute sucker for movies with unreliable narrators, for scripts full of flawed individuals whom no one can get a firm grasp on until the end credits roll. I believe this sort of dynamic is what True Story is shooting for, but once the film had ended I was left feeling unsatisfied. Maybe that’s the point, but I would have liked more exploration into who each of these men is. Sure, there are times when it seems like Finkel carries on with this relationship for the sake of redeeming his journalistic career. And as for Longo, perhaps he just wants to be acquitted of the heinous charges brought against him. Those are concrete motivations, though, and True Story doesn’t have any interest in following completely through with them,

That isn’t a bad thing; I don’t want to watch a movie that beats me over the head with its intentions. Despite this, I don’t feel like True Story is a very good entry into the cat-and-mouse genre. Late in the film, we’re basically instructed as viewers to reflect back upon what both men lost over the course of their correspondence. I didn’t really have much of an answer. Longo’s trial would have gone the same direction based on evidence, and Finkel was able to translate his work with Longo into gainful employment.

I won’t say much more than that. I get that this is based on real life events, so only so many liberties can be taken with the source material. That doesn’t mean I should be stopped from seeing what’s beneath the surface. Too much of True Story is rooted in providing details without examining the underbelly of the Finkel-Longo relationship. I want more depth!

There are two conversations between Longo and Finkel’s fiance, Jill (Felicity Jones). While Jill seems bothered that Michael is pouring his life into talking with Longo, we aren’t privy to seeing the couple in their life together to find out exactly what the impact of Michael’s new obsession is. Is Jill questioning Michael’s motivations? Does she see anything morally wrong with his all-out biographical approach to detailing Christian Longo? We have no way of knowing.

True Story is by no means a bad movie–in fact, it does plenty of things right. Many of the one-on-ones between the two leads are fascinating, and I take no issue with either Hill or Franco’s performance. Despite the relative solidity of everything here, it’s the missed opportunities that stand out and leave the film feeling like a fraction of what it could have been, as the tension never quite elevates to the levels I continually expected as the story unfolded.

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