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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: True Story

TRUE STORY (Three Stars)
U.S.: Rupert Goold, 2015


Truth may not always be stranger than fiction, but it sometimes seems to sell better —  even though that “truth” may be ambivalent  and the reporting questionable. True Story, a true crime movie drama which has some very good scenes and performances, and also some that are disturbingly dubious, supplies a couple of juicy fact-based roles for real-life buddies Jonah Hill and James Franco — and both of them dive right in, taking over the screen joyously, both when they’re together and sometimes when they aren’t. That doesn’t mean that the movie is entirely or even largely satisfying. It’s not, though the two lead actors give it everything they can.

Hill, a born second banana with the face (sometimes) of a hooked fish, plays Michael Finkel (who also co-wrote True Story and wrote the book on which the movie is based). Finkel, a name you may know, was a New York Times free-lance journalist, who made up a character for one of his Times magazine stories, got fired and then tries to redeem himself with a  big story that drops into his lap back in his heartland home.

Opposite him, Franco, a born sexually ambiguous movie heartthrob who was once typecast as James Dean, here assumes the persona of  Christian Longo, a mysteriously grinning chap who’s on trial for murdering his wife and children, and who briefly assumed Finkel’s identity which fleeing from the law in Mexico. Longo calls Finkel his favorite writer and contacts him, while he’s in stir in his ugly orange jail uniform. The sharply acted encounters between the accused killer and the disgraced newsman take place in a chilly meeting room that looks like an ante-room to some drained white Purgatory.

Both these characters are real people, given their real names, and both of the actors (who last appeared together, hilariously playing “themselves,“ in Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic comedy a clef This is the End) are fine, especially Franco — who really should be forgiven by his Boo Squad for that subversively bad performance as a recent Oscar host. (Franco’s old Pineapple Express turn as a genial pothead alone should wipe it out.)

The movie begins with  a weirdly poetic view of a teddy bear and his little girl owner (one of the children that Longo has allegedly killed), dropping down into a suitcase that will then be abandoned underwater — then shifts to scenes of Finkel’s professional downfall in the great cold offices of the New York Times. It is after going home to Montana, and intellectual girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones) that Finkel finds out about Longo, who declared himself  the writer‘s biggest fan, after which Michael visits him in prison — accepting Longo‘s offer of an exclusive story (which the accused killer claims will clear him), and commencing a bizarre friendship. In that friendship or collaboration or dark union, Longo is a smilingly charismatic anti-hero/maybe villain and Finkel is his chubby, wary, angst-ridden Boswell.

Both these characters are real people, given their real names, and both of the actors (who last appeared together, hilariously playing “themselves,“ in Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic comedy a clef This is the End) are fine, especially Franco — who really should be forgiven by his Boo Squad for that subversively bad performance as a recent Oscar host. (Franco’s old Pineapple Express turn as a genial pothead alone should wipe those bad memories out.)

True Story itself is directed and co-written with  an arty polish, gleam and intelligence, and occasionally with real impact, by Rupert Goold, an admired British stage and TV director, who’s done some well-regarded Shakespeare (a “Macbeth” and a “Richard II“), and here does very well by his audience (most of the time), and by his actors, if not their real-life counterparts, while telling a tale full of largely off-screen sound and fury, signifying…“something?”

Like last year‘s Foxcatcher, which was also a true crime drama about a buddy-buddy relationship and a shocking and sometimes mystifying crime, True Story keeps its story and often its characters somewhat opaque, even when one of them gives us all a big fat wink. Part of the reason for that reticence is the bloodiness and awfulness of the crime itself, as well as the not-sympathetic view of things generated by  the filmmakers and actors. Longo’s wife and little daughters were killed and then dumped, and other family members are convinced that he did it, while Finkel, who needs Longo for his redemption book, is, perhaps understandably, not so sure. Is it because he has a lucrative book project in the offing? Is it because he’d like to give a zinger to the Gray Lady? Or is it because the chillingly self-confident Longo, with his cold-blooded charm, all but seduces him in their meetings?

Hill makes Finkel someone believably guarded and anxious, as occasionally self-serving and self-destructive as he is self-aggrandizing, ambitious and gifted. Franco makes Longo both creepy and seductive, a possible monster pulling his possible pigeon (Finkel) down into a dark whirlpool of possible pathologies and lies. Two sometimes consummate actors, they both always seem real — though “seems” is relative and so is “real. And so is “True Story.”

There haven’t been very many really good films lately, ever since the Oscars were over — except for Olivier Assayas’ brilliant backstage drama Clouds of Sils Maria, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, and also the powerful minimalist Israeli courtroom picture Gett — and so the good parts of  Goold’s show are welcome, even if the film as a whole is a bit unsatisfying. Maybe the fact that Finkel was so intimately involved in its creation was both a blessing and a curse; it’s hard not to see prongs of self-justification poking through the personal narratives of this story’s anxious exiled protagonist (Finkel) and cool imprisoned antagonist (Longo).


True or not, the good parts of this movie make up for it. Goold is a better than good director, though, as with Foxcatcher, one wants a little more resolution and explanation than this movie gives.  True Story though, is very often rescued by its intelligence and by its two lead actors, Hill and Franco, who always give us something interesting to watch. Hill, with his customary subtly goofy humanity, shows us the darker side of journalism. Franco, with an eerie smile, shows us the darker side of families, life and death.


And True Story itself shows us that truth, or what people call truth, is often ambiguous, sometimes mutable, occasionally dangerous and always subject to revision.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon