Between the cold-case podcast Serial and Robert Durst’s wink-wink tease on The Jinx, true crime stories in the did-he-or-didn’t-he vein are having what they call a cultural moment. So it would seem time to tell the real story of journalist Michael Finkel’s borderline disturbing relationship with accused family murderer Christian Longo. If you can do it with movie stars, all the better. But the tentative and moody True Story doesn’t have the synapse-sparking fizz that marks the best true crime stories. It squanders more of the opportunities packed into this tale of worlds colliding than it takes advantage of.
In 2002, Finkel was a rising star at the New York Times. At least, until they figured out that his gripping magazine cover feature on slave trading in Africa was partially fabricated. After being shown the door, Finkel returned home to Bozeman, Montana. In the middle of figuring out the next stage of his life, something drops in his lap: Another reporter calls to get his reaction to the story that when Longo, a fugitive, was finally arrested in Mexico, he had been traveling under Finkel’s name. Like most people in that situation, Finkel was intrigued. Like most journalists, he thought there was a story, and possibly a book, in it.
True Story is mostly a two-hander in which the nakedly ambitious Finkel (Jonah Hill) sizes up Longo (James Franco) to determine how much of a con he’s putting on. Meanwhile, Longo plays his cards close. They parse each other’s angles in a stark white prison chamber while also pursuing a quizzical but seemingly warm friendship. Longo is accused of murdering his wife and three children and doesn’t have a good alibi. But Finkel is eager to find another side to him, if only to palliate his guilt at enjoying his conversations with a butcher. After all, there’s less of a story here if Longo turns out to be just a cold-hearted killer with a sideline in light identify theft. Also, Finkel doesn’t have a lot else to fall back on. “Is it a book?” asks the editor from the publisher Finkel’s pitching the story to. To Finkel, it’s an epic. It’s about him, in many ways, and the top-of-the-world guy we see briefly at the start of the film is nothing if not impressed with and eager to talk and write about himself.
The irony-riddled title (also the name of the book the real Finkel eventually published) sets us up for an onion-skin story of layered fakery and concealments. That’s not what director Rupert Goold (who co-wrote the adaptation with David Kajganich) delivers, though. The sketched-in screenplay is given to dum-dum-dum pronouncements like “I thought maybe you could tell me what it’s like to be me” and “Everybody deserves to have their story heard” without much shading between those beats. Few details are sketched in. This is a problem for a film about a journalist, even one who didn’t mind bending the truth to get to a larger truth. A lot is made in the film of that point, that Finkel wanted fame, but he also wanted to bring attention to a serious issue. In other words, we’re supposed to think of him as more than just another empty and glory-grubbing Stephen Glass.
Hill isn’t the performer to illuminate that side of this character. He spends much of the film frozen turtle-like in Goold’s pore-examining close-ups, his slow and monotone delivery failing to exhibit anything more than what is written on the page. It’s unclear that he ever quite understands the enormity of what he did. Franco’s Longo is a different entity. Downplaying his more common antic energy, Franco steeps his performance in a languid and effective brand of heavy-lidded self-contempt. He only rouses himself to feed Finkel’s nakedly hungry ego with tidbits of insight or flagrant flattery. His cagey demeanor teases Finkel, and for a time the audience as well, with the promise of peering behind the veil and discovering that maybe there’s not a monster back there.
That’s not enough of a promise to power the entire film. We hear a lot about Finkel’s journalistic prowess but see little of it in action. The film is instead a morality tale without a real moral, just a shortsighted protagonist who doesn’t realize how deep he is in the quicksand or that there even is any quicksand. Like Finkel’s editor worried, it’s a story, not a book.