Reality almost never makes a good movie. So much of life happens in our own heads. Personal dynamics develop through a stretch of years and years of interactions. Seemingly random tragedies happen all the time. Humans have an incredible capacity to create stories and put them onto the events around us.
This is the space that the film “True Story” deals with. While the film itself represents an example of these impulses gone right, much of what we see in the film is this story impulse taken to false and manipulative extremes.
The New York Times reporter Michael Finkel is disgraced. It’s his own fault. He created a secret composite character in a New York Times story on slavery in Africa. That’s code for lying. The central plot tells his story about himself and his own lies as well as a story of another person accused of lies and additionally murder. The accused, Christian Longo, is trying to become more amenable, put on his best face for a jury, and tell his side of things.
“True Story” is clearly self-aware of the place it holds. Finkel is using this story to rehabilitate his public image and get that sweet Hollywood money. The film doesn’t let him escape without commenting though. The family of the deceased openly point out how his writing a book is exploitation of their tragedy. The film knows that by association, it itself is potentially guilty of this as well.
Is Longo just using Finkel? Will Finkel prove Longo innocent? If Longo gets out of jail will he do weird and evil things to Finkel and his family? Will he make any ominous phone calls from prison? You can find out for yourself. Google exists, this is a true story and easy to spoil. It is not the details of the plot that are the strength of the movie but the dynamic between Jonah Hill’s Finkel and James Franco’s Longo. At the same time, the tension in the film is held incredibly better if the audience doesn’t know how things are going to shake out. Google in this case could ruin the film.
If you can get past their faces and set aside preconceptions, this film is a fine piece of work between the two of them. I know Franco is a problem for many, if you can’t see him as anything but a stoner or his silly public professor-artist persona then this movie or any of his movies should probably be on hold. Go do a Franco detox. His performance here gives you that sincere but murderous vibe without giving anything away.
Whereas some biopics connect rather mundane uninteresting moments in a person’s life with some fictional through line, “True Story” actually seems to tone down how weird what actually happened is.
“True Story” is not particularly notable except for the fact that it is a biopic that works. Biopics generally are a minefield of garbage. For someone like me, the stars have to align to willfully seek one out. If I am ever looking for one though, “True Story” is a fine choice.
“True Story” is now playing at the Oriental, AMC Mayfair, and at Marcus Theaters.