True Story. 2015. Directed by Rupert Goold. Screenplay by Rupert Goold and David Kajganich; based on the memoir by Michael Finkel. Starring Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol, Betty Gilpin, Seth Barrish, Robert Stanton, and Michael Countryman. Plan B Entertainment. Rated R. 99 minutes. Drama/Mystery/Thriller.
4 out of 5 stars
Both Jonah Hill and James Franco are very talented. I’ve enjoyed their respective careers a good deal. They’ve each got their own areas where they work very well – naturally I feel like Hill is certainly a comedian while Franco is more of the drama man of the two. However, recently Hill is giving a good turn in some more serious films, and it’s a great pairing of him and Franco here.
I most certainly found the acting to be top notch, one of the best things about True Story. Franco puts in an excellent and subdued performance, as well as Hill, but the script is also pretty well written.
Funny enough, Rupert Goold, who directed this film, has only done one episode of a television mini-series and one episode of a regular television series before tackling True Story. I’d actually never heard of Michael Finkel, or Christian Longo, before this movie was announced. Straight away I was interested. It intrigues me that Goold was given the job of directing this film; I’d love to know more about how he got the job to start. Regardless, Goold does a splendid job with the direction, and the overall tone of the film is set by how the camera moves, capturing the actors from the comforts of Michael’s home to the jail where Longo is held. He knows what he’s doing, I hope Goold will go on to do some other interesting projects in the near future.
True Story tells the tale of Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), a reporter for the New York Times. We begin as Finkel is in Africa, interviewing young boys who are obviously victims of the slave trade. When Finkel goes back to the NYT office with his story in hand, shortly after it’s discovered that he made up a composite character of the boys he interviewed and passed the fictional character (though composed with pieces of fact) off as real in his article. The Times fire him. Finkel begins to search for a new home, somewhere to write, and it begins to feel desperate.
At the same time, Christian Longo is apprehended in Mexico by police – he claims, however, that he is Michael Finkel, a reporter for the New York Times. Of course, he is Christian Longo – accused of the murder of his wife and three children.
Finkel is contacted by a reporter from The Oregonian, Pat Frato (Ethan Suplee), who lets him in on the fact that Longo is using Finkel’s name.
Finkel goes to meet Longo. From there a tenuous relationship begins. Finkel starts writing a non-fiction novel about the story, but it becomes clear Longo is not exactly being upfront as he makes out to be. With his reputation on the line and everything to lose, Finkel navigates the waters of this uneasy bond to try and salvage himself and his career.
James Franco does some of his best work here, in my opinion. Not only does he have a truly chilling attitude, the way he speaks to others (especially scenes with Jonah Hill), but his voice is what got me. You can obviously tell it’s him, apart from the fact he’s in front of your face; it isn’t like he is using an accent. What strikes me is that Franco doesn’t have that usual tone of voice that he speaks with, and he really gets into the character of Christian Longo. Coupled with the body language, his voice creeps slightly. It isn’t overtly strange, there’s just something about it, quiet and composed, that gets under my skin.
The courtroom scenes with Longo especially blew me away. They weren’t full of outright intensity, but again – Franco has that cool exterior, his demeanour is chilly and calculated. I think those are the moments where he really sells Christian Longo to the fullest because it’s so unbelievably creepy in its own way. Franco easily embodies the monster Longo is, in just about every scene. He is one of the reasons this film works, along with Hill. The two of them together in scenes is excellent, while they both operate quite well apart.
I think Jonah Hill is proving to be an even better dramatic actor than he is a comedic performer. He’s still hilarious when he wants to be, but in True Story, Hill gives us more to latch onto with a compelling performance. There is still that boyish charm Hill has in all his other work, however, with the part of Michael Finkel comes a restrained character. There’s nothing over-the-top about Finkel, unlike some of Hill’s roles such as Superbad and This is the End. Here, he gets the time to show us emotion. Even early on after Finkel is abruptly let go from his position at the New York Times, Hill gives us this great scene: Michael walks out of the NYT office, all his belongings in hand, and the look in his eyes, all over his face, speaks louder than any words ever could. It’s like the kick-off to an excellent show, you know there’s much better things in store.
Watching Finkel in the courtroom is a great companion to how we’re glued to watching and listening to Longo. There are perfect reactions on the part of Hill, without going overboard. You almost feel a disappointment in Finkel, as if he somehow was hoping Longo didn’t do any of the horrible things he is accused of, but hearing the words out of Christian’s mouth rock him, silently. Proves that Jonah Hill works well with his expressions, and that his parts don’t have to be filled completely with dialogue for him to portray the role appropriately.
One of the things I liked most about True Story is how the duality of Michael Finkel and Christian Longo worked. Basically, Finkel was at this place in his life where things were suddenly falling apart, just as he’d thought they were on the way upward. Then he meets Longo not too long after he leaves the New York Times. Finkel begins to meet with Longo, and one of their encounters says it all: Christian divulges that he feels like a loser because he couldn’t even afford to buy his kids new toys, they had to hand them all down, this crushed him, the weight of his own disappointment in who he was as a father. Finkel reassures him by saying it was the most relatable thing he’d said so far, and that it’s hard to relate to a person accused of four murders.
At this point Finkel starts to see strange little similarities between himself and Longo. They appear to doodle the same way in their respective notebooks, almost identically in certain cases. Almost unsettling is a moment where the two bond over a mutual knowledge of Dr. Seuss; it was on the verge of being sweet, a little comedic, but there’s a sinister undertone beneath it all. The thing is – Finkel realizes how human a killer can be. By all accounts, Longo is a man who murdered his own wife and children, yet Finkel sees what very few of us ever will see: the bits of humanity under the cracks on the surface of a killer’s identity. Not many people, outside of law enforcement, family, lawyers, will ever see these killers in their true light, but also in the light none of us really want to see; the parts of a killer we can sympathize with, the things we know as humans. And this is one of the best elements of True Story, as it explores that duality by juxtaposing Finkel and Longo as these polar opposites with an odd attachment to one another. It’s almost as if, in some scenes, you imagine that Christian Longo is Michael Finkel if Finkel had never achieved the potential he has as a writer. Not to mention, some of the doubts and insecurities attacking Longo on the inside are similar to the insecurity Finkel feels – about relationships, failure, work, the everyday heaviness of life. Some of the things Finkel begins to uncover in their meetings haunts him, and at the same time drives him.
This isn’t perfect – a 4 out of 5 star film. Regardless, it’s so much better than most of the biopics out there. Simply due to the source material. James Franco and Jonah Hill really make this a treat to watch, they pull out the stops on their characters and draw us in. It’s great to see each of them in a different light than usual, and they’ve done excellent jobs at proving they aren’t one-trick ponies; in my mind, anyways.
Also, I have to mention how much I loved the scene between James Franco and Felicity Jones nearing the latter part of the film. It was intense and very real, emotional. Jones is a great actress and she really dug into this scene. Though she isn’t a lead, this one scene between Jones and Franco proves she has some real acting chops. Perfect scene, so well executed.
I really love how Rupert Goold directs the film. It could’ve all been by-the-numbers. Instead, Goold gives us these great filler scenes usually while Longo is talking where we see these beautifully shot moments – yet they are of the darkest kind. One in particular I love is when Longo confesses his crimes in the courtroom, and he talks about how his daughter was put in the suitcase; there she is, laying in the suitcase with clothes all around her, over her, and a teddy bear slowly drops from up above, down against her. It’s a magical, haunting scene. Really pushes things somewhere else than the average biopic out there.
I can absolutely recommend people see this because it’s well-directed, has a pretty good script, as well as having two incredibly engaging performances by the lead actors, James Franco and Jonah Hill. The supporting cast fills in all the cracks, real nice. Get out and see this, as soon as you can. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.