Film Review: True Story

True Story poster

True Story Plot:

Disgraced journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) finally meets Christian Longo (James Franco), the accused killer who has taken on Finkel’s identity.

I am sick and tired of movies based on true stories. More often than not I think there is a compulsion to add more than is necessary to tell an interesting story and what should be compelling narratives turn into worthless anthologies; cinematic tomes that go on for ever. Unfortunately, these films are all too common these days, especially as vehicles for all kinds of critical recognition and award buzz.

Jonah Hill and Felicity Jones in True Story
Photos Credit: Mary Cybulski.  Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Fortunately, True Story is not that kind of film.

Categorizing it as a true crime film doesn’t give it enough credit. Calling it a cat and mouse thriller doesn’t quite fit either. It really is more of a film about obsession. Finkel’s obsession with the everything from the truth to Christian Longo to reestablishing himself as a success elevate this story to the likes of Moby Dick instead of Zodiac and that’s an important distinction.

True Story is in fact, based on the true events surrounding the aftermath of the 2001 murder of the Mary Jane Longo and her three children. Once requested by name, a disgraced journalist starts a partnership with the alleged killer in the months leading up to the trial. Mike Finkel needs a story to get his career back on track. Christian Longo wants to give him one. Without knowing too much about the Longo murders beforehand, everything is handled with the right amount of weight. The film does a great job of tricking you into forgetting about the murder while you are focusing on the chemistry between leads Hill and Franco to an excellent effect.

One of the key strengths of True Story is its casting. Jonah Hill can play a great jerk. While Mike Finkel is our protagonist, you never really know if he is doing anything for the right reasons. You are questioning how his partnership may be affecting the trial and Mike’s overall well being. Hill has done an excellent job over the past few years of establishing himself as someone who can play a tool. From Wolf of Wall Street to This is the End, Hill can play a generally unlikeable character in a special way that nobody in Hollywood can currently match.

James Franco in True Story.
Photos by Mary Cybulski.  Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

On the other hand, James Franco plays weird like no one else. The character of Christian is an enigmatic one. You never know exactly what he is thinking, but you always know that the wheels are spinning in the background. His endgame a mystery, Franco does an excellent job of making Longo a charismatic almost sympathetic character, and within seconds completely shifts gears to remind us why everyone in the film besides Finkel is terrified of him.

Not to be forgotten is Felicity Jones who plays Jill. From the trailers you would barely recognize her as a player in True Story. Make no mistake, She carries a large part of the emotional burden, asking Mike the difficult questions and confronting Longo in one of the most intense scenes in the film. With a recent Oscar nomination under her belt, its a surprise she isn’t a bigger part of True Story’s marketing but it works out in the audiences favor since very little of what she does is spoiled.

Talking about the marketing for a second, the advertisements I have seen recently all feature the same shot and it sets a strange expectation for True Story. Christian Longo is in handcuffs in an elevator. He is being escorted by armed policemen. For whatever reason, the shot cuts to Longo’s hands adjusting themselves as if he is about to escape. Don’t be fooled. You aren’t going to enjoy this movie if you are worried Christian Longo is going to break out of prison. The question is whether or not he will get released and that is a much more dangerous question.

Jonah Hill and James Franco in True Story.
Photos by Mary Cybulski.  Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Overall True Story has a lot to offer. The story is compelling and asks a lot of interesting questions about the nature of true stories. The acting, while not the height of either leads career, is good. In her couple of scenes Jones really steals the show from Hill and Franco. One point of issue is that True Story does take a while to really get moving but you never notice for too long. A lot of the emotional weight of the film shows up in the third act, which is about what you would expect but spreading it out a bit may have helped the slower first act. Honestly, it feels like a play more than a film, thanks to many of the one on one scenes and that kind of presentation may have helped turn a pretty good film into an excellent staged production.

Rating: 7/10

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Matthew Nando Kelly is an incredibly cool and handsome staff writer for Pop-Break who was allowed to write his own bio. Aside from weekly Flash reviews, he writes about film, television, music, and video games. Matthew also has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he discusses pop culture related brackets with fellow Pop-Break writer DJ Chapman. He loves U2, cats, and the New Orleans Saints. He can also occasionally be found writing lists on Topless Robot and his twitter handle is @NationofNando
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Matthew Nando Kelly is the cool and tough Managing Editor of Pop Break who was allowed to write his own bio. Besides weekly Flash recaps, he has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he makes pop culture brackets with fellow writer DJ Chapman.