Hogwash, by David Bax
Rupert Goold makes a respectable feature film debut with his work in True Story. There’s a measured functionality to his shot choices, the pacing of his cuts and the warm aural tones that put you in the same space as the subjects. With his thorough competence and lack of individual style, Goold has all the making of a reliable journeyman. He almost certainly has a number of terrific films in his future, as long as he isn’t saddled with a screenplay as doltish as this one.
True Story tells the, you guessed it, true story of journalist Mike Finkel (portrayed by Jonah Hill), who was fired from the New York Times after falsifying parts of a story. Not long after (in the movie, it feels like a matter of days; in reality, it was months), a man named Christian Longo (portrayed by James Franco) was arrested in Mexico for the murder of his wife and three children in Oregon. During his time on the run, Longo was using the name Mike Finkel. Apparently, he was a fan.
Learning that your named was being used by an alleged murderer would spark the interest of just about anyone but to Finkel, who’s fishing for work in the wake of his scandal, it’s more than just intriguing. It’s a way back into his career. It’s a surefire scorcher of a story with a hook that only he can write. Thus begins the relationship between Finkel and Longo, the latter jailed and awaiting trial. Longo agrees to provide exclusive access to Finkel in exchange for writing lessons. Finkel agrees to withhold publishing his book until after the trial.
Longo may be the alleged murderer here but it’s Hill’s Finkel that Goold and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi punish with their compositions. While the camera addresses Franco head-on, allowing him to be in control of the frame, Hill’s shorter stature is emphasized by his being pushed to the bottom of the screen. When Finkel takes a plane trip home after being fired, only his eyes and the top of his head poke up above the seats. That shot is echoed the first time he visits Longo and is barely tall enough to be seen through the window set into the door of the prison’s visitation room. These methods are obvious and superficial but effective in allowing us to see how Finkel is beaten down and how susceptible he is to Longo’s creepy charms as a result.
Franco latches onto the role in a way we haven’t seen in the three years since Spring Breakers. He’s playing multiple levels of Longo, presenting him as soft and gentle before letting us see the sharp intelligence behind his eyes that makes him seem unpredictable. Longo is dangerous in a way that should be clear to anyone. Yet Hill works to help us understand how Finkel could befriend and begin to believe the man simply because he has offered what’s been missing from FInkel’s life. He gives him respect.
Unfortunately, all the fine work being done by Hill and Franco is, in effect, bulldozed by Goold and David Kajganich’s screenplay, which spells every possible theme and motivation out in letters ten feet tall and flaming. Finkel defends his collaboration with Longo by saying, “Everybody deserves to have their story told.” It’s a tenet of journalistic ethos, to be sure, but it’s also clearly about Finkel’s umbrage at having been pilloried by public opinion without the chance to defend himself. It doesn’t help that Goold places it at the end of the scene in such a way that Hill may as well have dropped a microphone and strode off stage after delivering the line. Then, later, when Longo repeats a writerly chestnut of Finkel’s during his testimony, it’s designed to be a jaw-dropper but it’s so clumsy and obvious that it’s funny. (When Tony Soprano would recycle his therapist’s observations, the show knew to play it for laughs.) And in Felicity Jones’ big scene, in which she, as Finkel’s wife, compares Longo to murderer and Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, Goold and Kajganich can’t help but gild the lily by including the likely apocryphal detail of Gesualdo killing his child in addition to his wife. Just in case the connection wasn’t strong enough.
Goold knows how to direct. But seeing him try to wrestle a screenplay as clunky as this one into submission is like watching a man try to sculpt clay with oven mitts on. The onscreen irony in True Story is that Finkel made Longo more sympathetic by making him a better storyteller. The offscreen irony is that the film doesn’t seem to have learned any of those lessons itself.