Sundance 2015 Review: ‘True Story’ is Worth Telling
How has no other biopic used this title before? Sure, Lincoln or Jobs are famous enough to command their names in the title, but surely some of the lesser known news stories struggled to find a catchy title. It was so obvious. Well, now True Story called dibs.
When Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is caught fudging the facts in a New York Times story, he can’t get another job in journalism. But then the ultimate story falls right in his lap. Fugitive Christian Longo (James Franco) had been using Finkel’s name in Mexico. That’s a story they have to let Finkel tell. I mean, they could assign it to a third party, but you’d be foolish not to pursue the angle of identity theft victim who just happens to be a journalist, already confronting the criminal who used his name. He still has to pitch it as a freelancer. No one’s forgiving him just because he landed a scoop.
True Story is a great story about journalistic ethics. The scene of Finkel’s falsifications being exposed addresses lots of important subtle issues of crafting a story beholden to facts. His relationship with Longo is fraught with moral and ethical questions. It begins seeming like it could be redemption for Finkel, and perhaps a therapeutic self-analysis for Longo, if those are things either of them deserve. Finkel ends up teaching Longo how to contextualize his truths to appear more sympathetic. That’s when he at least has reasonable cause to believe Longo is innocent.
The story complicates considerably when Longo’s murder trial begins. There are simple shifts in the story but they re-contextualize how we perceive Longo’s actions. I knew what Longo’s explanation was going to be. I haven’t heard anything about this story before but I can extrapolate. That makes it no less poignant. I guess I’ve seen enough in my life to imagine horrible situations.
The power inherent in this story is enhanced considerably by stunning performances. Hill is a rock in True Story, grounding a pursuit of truth with suspicions of a more selfish agenda. Franco strips away a lot of his charm to reveal a stark manipulator. He may play a puppy dog in the beginning, but we can see the wheels turning. It’s all calculated. Felicity Jones continues to impress as Finkel’s wife, Jill, who is able to question her husband in a supportive way, but lays it all out there by the end.
True Story is an impressive cinema debut from theater director Rupert Goold. He crafts a compelling, complex and mature story full of questions. This one has answers, because there was an ending to the true story. We may never get the big answer to “how can someone do something like this” but it can help us figure out how we relate to such people. It is a story worth telling.