The "True" Story of a Liar and an Accused Murderer

By Ali Bush ‘19
Staff Writer

“True Story” is— ironically enough— a fictionalized narrative of the real interactions between New York Times journalist, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and accused child murderer, Christian Longo (James Franco). Directed by British stage director Rupert Goold, the film relentlessly asks the questions, what is the truth, and does it even matter?

The film begins with what seems like the end of Finkel’s journalistic career, as he is found fabricating elements of an article that chronicles the lives of slave children in Africa. After he is fired from the New York Times, Finkel learns that that his identity has been appropriated by a man accused of killing his family, Christian Longo. Intrigued by why Longo chose to adapt his identity— a little-known, now ill-reputed journalist— Finkel decides to pay him a visit.

Eventually, the two strike up an intimate yet strained friendship, and Finkel agrees to write a book about Longo’s experiences and trial in order to save his own career as a writer. Despite their close bond, we sense a trace of tension and deception between these two lost souls, as both characters want something from the other. Finkel wants a best-selling book, sensationalizing the life of an accused-criminal that will save his career, and Longo wants a life-saving testimony.

It’s honestly a little unsettling to watch Hill and Franco acting together in a tense game of cat-and-mouse. We almost expect them to drop the act or break any minute, but ultimately, Franco delivers a spine-chilling performance as adopts the persona of an honest man who has been wrongly accused of an atrocious crime. As a man who seemed “totally normal” to his friends and family, his eerie facial expressions make us doubt his innocence and laud Franco’s dramatic acting abilities. On the other hand, Hill remains in a more reactive role, as most of his best performances are built off of Franco’s intensity.

It is appalling, however, that the film forces us to sympathize with Finkel as he searches for more jobs despite his major violation of journalistic ethics. It is Finkel’s girlfriend, played by Felicity Jones, that brings the most confrontation and emotion we see in the entire movie when she finally meets the accused murderer, and reproaches him for manipulating her boyfriend’s mind and career. Despite her unimportant role in the film, her passion and forthrightness is something that is lacking in the rest of the film, and it’s disappointing that this scene is merely two minutes long.

After Longo makes a testimony that is hard to stomach, the judge of his case abruptly informs us as to whether he is guilty or not. Because Finkel and Longo have developed such a close relationship, Finkel can’t even figure out the verdict himself and questions the court’s decision, posing the question, as to whether we can even trust the truth behind the court’s decsision. The only sure thing we can ascertain about Longo’s verdict is captured in his devilish wink, which personally made me jump a little. Despite the outcome of the trial, Finkel pursues writing Longo’s story and profits from it, a story about a liar and possibly a murderer.

Being Goold’s first film, the staunch settings are clearly reminiscent of a theater’s stage, in which little is present in the setting other than the main characters. The dramatic contrast between Finkel’s rustic Montana house and Longo’s barren prison reception cell provides the film with a sense of tension and suspense that is often lacking in the script.  

Ultimately, the film poses the question: does Longo’s story deserve to be told? Regardless of your answer to that, his story has already been told in both this film and Finkel’s book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which the film was based on. While the film is suspenseful and aesthetically pleasing, it is simply Finkel’s self-serving, career-saving story. It is a story that may be true, but it is also one that sympathizes with an unethical, money-hungry journalist and an accused murderer who is undeserving of anyone’s attention, much less Hollywood’s.