True Story - It's Actually About Ethics in Journalism

Matthew Parkinson | 18 Apr 2015 12:00
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Directed by Rupert Goold. Produced by Anthony Katagas, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner. Written by David Kajganich. Release date: April 17, 2015.

It was just a couple of weeks ago when I was lamenting movies that were based on a true story. Now we've got one that doesn't even need to make the claim - this fact is in the title. True Story is based on a book written by Michael Finkel, which told the story of one Christian Longo, a man arrested and charged with murdering his wife and three children. He was found in Mexico six days after the alleged murders, and had used Finkel's name as an alias. That got Finkel, a former writer for the New York Times, interested in telling Longo's story. The film, as a result, depicts their interactions and the subsequent court case facing Longo.

Michael Finkel is played by Jonah Hill and Christian Longo is played by James Franco. If this was a stoner comedy, the casting would make a lot more sense. In spite of this, both men deliver good performances that actually make you forget that this is not the type of movie for which either of them is known. We push out of our mind movies like Pineapple Express and Superbad to focus on these particular characters. We even ignore the fact that Longo's wife's name is "Mary Jane," which I hoped was an in-joke both at Franco's Spider-Man career and ... that other thing, but it sadly isn't. That was her name.

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Also disappointing is the film, which delivers its events in the driest, coldest way possible. The two men talk, the two men talk some more, the brief courtroom scene happens, and then the movie ends. We find out whether or not Longo actually did it - the narrative hook is that he may be innocent, since he hasn't yet confessed and seems to be hiding a secret - and then the movie ends, and we come away having gained very little.

Some of the more fascinating things that come from True Story don't involve the murders at all, actually. Its framing sees Finkel fired from the New York Times for creating a composite character for a story he did about slavery and abuse in Africa. Watching him try to find someone to take him on to write another piece is fascinating. His conversations with a publisher over trying to get a book deal for Longo's story are similar in this regard. Longo also wants to write, and agrees to tell Finkel his story if Finkel will teach him how to write better. So, that happens. Yes, in a movie about murder, writing tips and journalistic ethics are more interesting. Something went wrong.

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