‘True Story’: Skirts the truth

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For Digital First Media

If you are a hot shot journalist and you get caught confabulating a story, it’s a long fall from grace. That is the initial plot element, which propels “True Story.”

The film is inspired by a true life story. Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) had been an ambitious, young freelancer for “The New York Times.” “True Story” revolves around his relationship with Christian Longo (James Franco), a man accused of killing his wife and three children in a particularly chilling manner.

As the film opens in 2001, Finkel has just returned from an assignment in Africa. He’s cranked out a story about Youssouf Malé, an adolescent worker from Mali. He had migrated from his home to work on a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast. According to Finkel’s article, Malé had toiled as a picker for a year and earned a paltry $102 for his labors. Finkel’s article was provocatively titled, “Is Youssouf Malé A Slave?” It became a lead story for “The New York Times” magazine, replete with a haunting photograph of Malé on the cover.  It was quite a coup for Finkel.

There was only one problem. Finkel has committed some serious journalistic transgressions. It turned out that he had resorted to various fictional narrative techniques. The uncaptioned photo on the cover wasn’t even Malé-it was another lad, Madou Traoré. In reality, Malé had left the Ivory coast after only a month and returned to his home in Mali. Finkel had created composite character, who didn’t even exist.

Michael is hauled in for a tense meeting with his immediate supervisor and a higher ranking editor. When Finkel is confronted by his bosses, he expresses no contrition. Instead, he tries to defend his actions with various rationalizations. According to Finkel, the story is basically the truth. He contends that he has simply extrapolated from multiple sources and merged them into a single character. Finkel contends was just enhancing the story in an effort to bring more attention to the plight of these impoverished young workers. What’s the harm with that?

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "True Story" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_NiP_bqlns

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “True Story” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_NiP_bqlns

Of course, Finkel’s bosses reject his sophistry. They tell Finkel that he won’t be receiving any more assignments. Over Finkel’s pleas, the publication posted a lengthy retraction of his cover story. It delineated Finkel’s journalistic lapses in excruciating detail.

Is Finkel’s career as a journalist over? Will he ever recover from such a public humiliation? Finkel heads back to a remote cabin in Montana that he shares with his fiancée, Jill (Felicity Jones). He tries to pitch stories to various outlets. With his journalistic credibility tarnished, Finkel’s efforts prove unavailing.

Everything changes when Finkel is contacted by a reporter.  Finkel learns the lurid details about Longo (Franco). The Oregon resident is accused of having strangled his wife and infant son. Then, he supposedly killed his two older children. Prosecutors contend that Longo placed each of them in a bag, which was weighed down by rocks, then thrown off a bridge into an icy river. They were both drowned alive.

When Longo was arrested by the F.B.I. in Mexico, he was using Finkel’s name as an alias and pretending to be him. Imagine if you discovered that someone, who was accused of multiple, gruesome murders had appropriated your identity. Wouldn’t it throw you for a loop?

Instead, Finkel sees this development as a providential twist of fate. Could this be the break that he needs to pave his way back into journalism?

Finkel goes to meet Longo in prison. He encountered a conventionally handsome, well-spoken man, who hailed from a religious Jehovah’s Witness family. Could the man really be guilty of such heinous crimes? Longo insists that he is innocent.

Longo explains that he is a long-time admirer of Finkel’s writing. That’s why he appropriated Longo’s identity. The two strike a pact. Longo will give Finkel exclusive access to his story. As a quid pro quo, Finkel promises to teach Longo how to write. Finkel is able to use his newly-minted relationship to negotiate a lucrative book deal.

“True Story” is helmed by Rupert Goold. He is a highly-regarded director of vaunted theatrical works by the likes of Shakespeare and Pirandello. His imaginative mounting of “Macbeth” garnered the 2008 Olivier Award for Goold. However, “True Story” marks Goold’s debut as a feature film director. His expertise as a stage director does not translate into the cinematic format. “True Story” has a distinctly cold feel to it.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with “True Story” is its source material. The screenplay by Goold and David Kajganich is drawn from a self-serving memoir by Michael Finkel. Are we to accept the perspective of someone, who concocted a bogus new story, then entered into a dubious relationship with an accused child killer?  The adaptation gratuitously interjects an apocryphal incident into the text of the film. It depicts Finkel’s fiancée meeting with Longo in prison. However, the encounter never happened.

“True Story” is a film, which supposedly explores the importance of verisimilitude. Unfortunately, the film skirts the truth.

**1/1 R (for language and some disturbing images) 100 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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