How Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) came to meet Chris Longo (James Franco) is a fascinating story of chance and cold-blooded crime. The way it’s depicted in True Story, though, reveals less about the facts of Finkel and Longo’s strange, real-life alliance than it does the nature of truth, and the relationship between reporter and subject. As we’re introduced to Finkel, he’s in the middle of getting the boot from his job with The New York Times, for conflating the experiences of a number of young African boys who were used for slave labor in cocoa plantations along the Ivory Coast into a single figure in his 2001 New York Times Magazine story “Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?” The path that leads him from this disgrace to sitting beside Longo might have been treated as a tale of redemption, a talented writer finding his journalistic conviction in the wake of a huge professional betrayal, but the filmmakers see this more as the story of Finkel coming to terms with the hard, often conflicting truths at the center of his profession.
Finkel’s introduction to Longo is a flash of wild coincidence, as Hill’s middle-aged reporter is telephoned for a quote concerning Longo pretending to be Finkel when he was arrested in Cancun for the murder of his family in Oregon. The rest of the film centers around Longo’s murder trial and the writing of Longo’s memoir, which serves as the source material for and shares its name with Rupert Goold’s film, but the particulars of the drama and dialogue hinge on the subjectivity of nonfiction and fiction storytelling alike. In Goold and David Kajganich’s script, Franco’s moody, becalmed killer muddles the basis of his guilt at every turn, admitting to the murder of two of his children, but not his wife, Mary Jane (Maria Dizzia), or their third child, claiming a spotty memory of the events. The script sees Finkel as going through a sort of self-excoriation, trying to find, and much in the same way as his editors at the Times, the loopholes and cracks in the narrative that Longo ostensibly spins for him.
Finkel and Longo’s relationship is reminiscent of the one that developed between Truman Capote and Perry Smith during the writing of In Cold Blood, a process that served as the basis of Bennett Miller’s Capote. The similarities, however, don’t end there, as Goold’s aesthetic comes off as a barely thought-out variation of Miller’s signature style, particularly in its cold, lugubrious vision of American landscapes. But whereas Miller’s compositions and use of long takes in Capote invoke a haunting sense of how the past is at once philosophically weighty and essentially unknowable, Goold’s images only go toward building a mildly glum atmosphere of impending dread. If True Story’s copycat visual artistry illuminates nothing, at least its script is sincerely devoted to probing Finkel and Longo’s odd partnership.
Longo is written as an amiable, if not exactly charming, man, and Franco’s subtle delivery evokes the specter of a cold, strategic manipulator hiding beneath the likability. Similarly, Hill plays Finkel as welcoming, but also slyly stirs up a sense of greed and desperation in his character when money and reputation are at stake. Their exchanges give the film an involving dramatic backbone, whereas Goold’s visuals keep things vaguely moody without ever truly reflecting the violent emotions at the core of the story. At one point, the director casts Franco’s criminal in shadow-drenched silhouette, an image that transparently suggests both the character’s emptiness and Finkel’s—and in turn, our—inability to truly know him. The script tangles admirably with the idea that any “true story” is largely dependent on the perspective of the storyteller, but the cookie-cutter grimness of Goold’s visual methods only sells the film as yet another passable slice of American true crime.