‘True Story’ Raises Tough Questions about Truth—and Stories

On December 19, 2001, the body of a four-year-old boy was found in a lake in near Newport, Oregon. Over the course of the next week, the bodies of two more children, as well as their mother, were located in the water. The father of the family, Christian Longo, fled to Mexico where he began passing himself off as Michael Finkel, a reporter with the New York Times.

Meanwhile, the real Michael Finkel was going through his own ordeal (although hardly as gruesome). The up-and-coming journalist’s feature about the slave trade in modern-day Africa had just made the cover of the Times Sunday Magazine. But almost as soon as the piece was published questions began to circulate about its veracity. Finkel had conflated facts and invented characters—all in the name of making a better story. The Times was forced to run a retraction and Finkel’s future with that organization was over.

He retreated to his Montana home, then heard about Longo using his name as an alias. Finkel contacted Longo, who had been captured, and their correspondence and prison meetings formed the basis of a memoir Finkel wrote in 2005 called True Story.

Which has now been turned into a movie directed by Rupert Goold, from a screenplay by Goold and David Kajganich, starring Jonah Hill as Finkel and James Franco as Longo.

The great strength of True Story turns out to be its greatest problem as well. This is definitely a movie of several different parts, which at times seem to be at war with each other.

Entering the Maze

On a micro level, True Story is a nifty little thriller of sorts, almost a two-person drama in which Finkel and Longo play an intense cat-and-mouse game. It’s not so much a “whodunit”—that question is hardly ever in doubt—as it is an intellectual puzzle regarding the pursuit of personal truth. Both men, at the film’s opening, have already transgressed to varying degrees and both seem to be seeking to learn who they are and exactly what they’re capable of. In a dispassionate way I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the film. At a time when movies are awash in good vs. evil comic book sensibility, True Story is about the gray area in between. It’s not that the film seeks to redeem (or even explain) Longo’s behavior; the man “on trial” is actually Finkel. We already know that he’s willing to mutate the truth for a good story, even lying to himself about it in the process, and now we’re forced to question if he’s heading down the same path again.

Franco and Hill turn in precise and tightly controlled performances. Much of the drama in this film is hidden in the subtext and both men, with a slight twitch or off-kilter line reading, convey all that’s purposely being left unsaid. Franco does a wonderful job playing Longo as a blank slate, eager to allow everyone to see in him what they’re looking for, and Hill is to be congratulated for refusing to play to our sympathies. Even by the end of the film I still wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about Finkel: whether to see him as a self-deluded writer with his eye constantly on the main chance or a sincere naïve in danger of losing his way. Felicity Jones is compelling and understated as Finkel’s wife, and Gretchen Mol as the dead mother’s sister has a brief scene of rage and grief which she handles expertly.

The problems begin when you pull back from “the movie” and real life intrudes. Much is made in the film about the book Finkel is writing and how he’s been hoodwinked by Longo. While pursuing the facts for his eventual memoir he is confronted on several occasions with the reality that, at the bottom of this tale, are a dead woman and three small children. For Finkel to sit in the prison’s visiting room and provide Longo with the outlet and possible publicity he craves, has he (Finkel) lost himself again inside a “good story”? That is, I suppose, a question which has pursued journalists and writers for years and years.  Finkel did not, and I think, has not come up with an appropriate answer.

This moral ambiguity is exponentially increased when you pull back even further and think about the fact that the movie exists at all. Perhaps if this were an invented story—if it wasn’t based on a truly horrific act—it might have been able to raise some of these ethical questions in a cleaner way. But director Goold could be considered as morally compromised as Finkel. In making a film about a reporter’s myopic pursuit of a good story, has he been just as myopic in putting that pursuit on the screen?

Stories within Stories, Irony upon Irony, and What’s at the Bottom

By no means do I want to suggest that Goold has in any way exploited this tragedy; his work as a director is informed with integrity and compassion. But there’s a certain irony underlying this project. Finkel is dismissed from the Times for inventing characters, altering timelines and testimony and bending the truth, even if he committed those acts for the best of motives; the horror of the African slave trade needed publicized and he knew (rightly) that people would pay more attention if he wrote the piece to fit a familiar narrative form. Goold and fellow screenwriter Kajganich have invented characters, altered timelines and bent the truth for the best of motives, to tell the horror of Longo’s life in a familiar narrative form … It’s as if M. C. Escher started making movies.

The biggest irony of the film is that Goold does his worst when he’s trying to do his best. Throughout the movie there are fleeting glimpses of the crimes in flashback; these are quick and handled with restraint and care. But toward the end there is an extended sequence in which we watch two of the children being murdered. I think Goold has included this because he wants to remind us of the hideous truth of what happened. And unfortunately, for him, he succeeds—because at that point Finkel’s troubles and Longo’s humanity vanish and suddenly you no longer care about the cat-and-mouse game happening in the prison or questions about the nature of truth or journalistic ethics. Instead you find you just want to forget this sad story and leave the poor victims in peace.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based writer and critic.