In 2002, Christian Longo was arrested in Mexico for the December 2001 murders of his wife and three children. In the month or so he’d been hiding out there, he used the alias Michael Finkel. Not uncommon for fugitives to do that, but in Longo’s case, the name was that of a specific person. It wasn’t someone he knew – not a neighbor or a friend or a fictional character. Michael Finkel was the name of a contributing editor at the New York Times who was fired by the paper around the same time as Longo’s arrest for writing a well-meaning, though fictional account of the African slave trade. When Finkel learns of Longo, he is intrigued enough to contact Longo directly to ask why the accused murderer used his name, of all people. True Story is the movie adaptation of Finkel’s resulting book that detailed their relationship.
For the movie, Jonah Hill (The Wolf Of Wall Street, 21 Jump Street) was cast as Finkel, with James Franco (everything else) as Longo. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of the casting as an almost contradictory choice. Not that either actors have not been good – I’ve enjoyed both Hill and Franco in various movies, and I actually respect the diversity of the roles they’ve taken on. But I can’t get it out of my head that these two are inextricably linked to This Is The End, a movie I found to be stupid, but pretty funny. Of course, I wasn’t expecting any kind of “Wonder Twins powers activate!” moment, but the thought of these actors pairing up in this kind of movie sat with me throughout.
I haven’t read Finkel’s book, but the case did appear in one of network TV’s true crime shows – I don’t recall which one, maybe 48 Hours – and the voice over epilogue set up the forthcoming adaptation, so when the movie was finally released almost a year later, my recollection of the show added another level of interest in seeing the movie. The result, however, isn’t the enthralling story I hoped for.
What Rupert Goold’s movie is, is hard to fathom – almost as hard to fathom as Goold being attached to this movie in the first place. Acclaimed almost exclusively for his stage directing work in Britain, True Story marks his first foray into movies, and while the movie is well directed, the writing (Goold is listed as co-writer, alongside David Kajganich) is pedestrian and feels flimsy at times. The content suffers from too many scenes of people talking at each other across desks – something that might play well to a rapt theater audience, but lacks the dynamism needed in movies. No, I’m not saying the movie lacks action scenes – it lacks visual imagination and style. The movie is so dry it’s practically dying of thirst. Every scene feels the same as the one that came after. The actors are all possessed of the terrible weight of life, as if they don’t have any kind of life outside of the story.
In short, True Story suffers from the burden of the “based on a true story” trope. Have you noticed that so many of these movies suffer from pacing? That everyone in them just seems to sober and serious all the time? That’s because it absolutely is a trope. Just like every 80s TV show car chase seemed to include a scene where a street vendor’s cart was wrecked by one of the cars, cinematic “true stories” all suffer from the same malaise. You watch these and wonder if these people were always so serious throughout the events depicted in the movie – but of course they weren’t. The writers of these movies care very little about the people. They’re drawn to the subject matter, normally something weighty and important, and they invest every one of their characters with that same sense of Oscar-bait importance. In contrast, take a look at the movie The Big Short. I can’t think of a subject matter as dull as investment fund managers pondering the subprime mortgage debacle – certainly, the subject matter was important to investigate and document, but think of it in terms of sitting in a theater for two hours watching people talk about it. As it turns out, Adam McKay’s movie was terrific, cleverly disguising the details in entertaining chunks of exposition, and shooting it all with a real visual flair, and humour! Why should there not be humour in even the darkest of things, because that’s what we as humans are able to do. Humour is as evolutionary a social behavior as that of leadership and the desire to collaborate, and we use it everywhere, even unconsciously. I don’t think for one minute that the lives of either Finkel or Longo were as one-note and devoid of character as the movie tells us they were. As it is, the movie is written by Goold and Kajganich (I suspect the latter was responsible for the actual shooting script, rather than it be a true collaborative effort) as to appeal to those who give out awards for this kind of movie.
The story is flat because of how it was shot, but also because there’s not a lot of meat on the bones anyway. There’s no real mystery of why Longo used Finkel’s name in Mexico – he just liked Finkel’s writing. Longo wants Finkel to teach him how to write in exchange for exclusivity on the story, but if there is any dramatic value to be wrong from that rag, there’s no such wringing here. Likewise, the courtroom scenes are devoid of anything interesting in terms of the writing, the direction, or the score.
Some of the scenes between Hill and Franco are odd too, in that they give off the faint scent of a homoerotic attraction between the characters. Whether they were intended or not – and it would have made the story a lot more interesting if they were, given that Hill’s screen relationship with the barely-utilized Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, and the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) smacks of one of mutual loneliness. One scene in particular contains so many of these cues that literally the only element missing from is Hill’s over-earnest Finkel pressing the palm of his hand to the window, silently mouthing the words, “I’ll be here,” as Franco’s Longo is led away from their prison meeting in cuffs.
As a drama, True Story doesn’t do anything new or interesting for it to be fully engaging, and as a “true story”, it doesn’t do enough to tell the audience why this particular story was worth telling. When the credits rolled, all I was really left with was a sense that the whole thing was like a mediocre, but well intentioned meal: overcooked as to be dry, underspiced as to have no flavor.