By Linc Leifeste | April 16, 2015
Director: Rupert Goold
Writers: Michael Finkel (memoir), Rupert Goold (screenplay)
Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee
On a basic level, for those of us with less free time (or spending money) than we’d like, and with a seemingly endless array of films always being released, there’s always an element of benefit-cost ratio involved in our assessment of the films we drop our cash on and park our asses in a dark theater for two hours to see. And solely from that perspective, I don’t have much nice to say about True Story, the feature film directorial debut from Rupert Goold. But to make matters worse, the film cost me more in other ways than it rewarded me. As a parent of young children, I’ve found myself extremely wary of stories that involve violence toward children, because in some part of my mind it’s always my child I’m imagining as I watch and listen. In that regard, there are sounds and images that I don’t welcome in my head, but that I can justify if the ultimate payoff is sufficiently intriguing or thought-provoking.
Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), an immensely talented reporter for the New York Times whose career is rapidly skyrocketing. The problem is, as we soon learn, he’s a man overly confident in his own abilities who believes he is due success and accolades and is due them now. He’s a man whose moral compass is badly bent, if not completely broken, willing to cut corners to speed up the process of his own ascension to the ranks of the journalistic elite. When his most recent Times cover story is discovered to contain, at best, blurred truths knowingly inserted by Finkel to make for a more compelling story, his journalistic career comes crashing down to the earth.
Soon thereafter Christian Longo (James Franco) is arrested in Mexico, accused of murdering his wife and three young children. In an odd twist of fate he’s been using “Michael Finkel, reporter for the New York Times” as an alias. It seems he’s an obsessive fan of Finkel’s work. Finkel discovers this when he’s contacted by a reporter (Ethan Suplee) who’s eager to get his take on the case. Intrigued, Finkel is soon off to visit Longo in prison and in no time he’s pitching a book proposal to a publisher, seeing in telling Longo’s story a chance to redeem his own journalistic career. Of course, there’s the question of Longo’s guilt or innocence and whether the stories he’s telling Finkel are reality-based. And there’s also the question of whether or not Finkel even cares about ideas of innocence, guilt or truth when it comes down to it.
Franco’s performance, featuring an eyelid that droops repeatedly as his mind wanders, feels like equal parts overacting and excessive reserve, leaving me with the strong impression that he doesn’t have the dramatic heft to run with Hill, who once again proves that he’s a capable dramatic actor. Sadly, it’s in service to a film that lacks in the way of suspense, depth or originality. From the beginning it’s clear that Finkel is a deeply flawed character and it’s soon apparent that he and Longo might be two different sides of the same coin, capable of the same duplicity if not the same level of violence. And there’s never much question as to Longo’s guilt or innocence. Instead the film predictably and flatly plods along, with the only question remaining to be answered whether or not Finkel comes to some self-discovery from his interactions with Longo.
But excuse me for not caring all that much, especially when the cost of finding out is the repeated, striking overhead image of Longo’s dead daughter stuffed in a suitcase as her favorite stuffed animal falls down in slow motion on top of her just before she’s zipped up and soon thereafter tossed into a coastal inlet, followed by the image of the suitcase slowly sinking in the water. I find that those depressing images are still burned in my brain, along with Franco’s drooping eyebrow, long after any even mildly deep thought about the film’s stories and characters have moved on.