The film will occasionally shoot a flare into the darkened corners of these numerous concepts, but full illumination is a far off ambition. True Story is an unfortunate instance where the director seems outmatched by the quality of the material. The premise is so delicious, the talent is very good, even the script is solid, but the hand on the till does not hold up its end of the bargain. In the most important moments of pure story, the film betrays itself again and again. Executed with an alarming lack of grace, and at least two moments of utter movie hokum, I’m not sure if Goold doesn’t trust his audience or himself, but either way it mortally wounds what could have been a fine film.
If you’re unfamiliar, True Story is based on a memoir of the same name by once disgraced journalist Michael Finkel. Our picture opens with some very sloppy scene setting. Running on parallel tracks soon to converge, we see an arrogant Finkel setting up his downfall, and another man in Mexico being arrested for the murder of his wife and three children. This fugitive claims to be New York Times journalist Michael Finkel. Finkel, in desperate need of a story, is soon hooked up with Christian Longo—the accused murderer claiming the Finkel identity—and they begin to connect to each other, each for their own reason. Pretty juicy, right? Well, with emphasis in all the wrong places, we’re only left to salivate.
Our bright spot is the acting. If you’d have told me as I walked out of Superbad that Jonah Hill was going to be a marked talent, I would’ve said, “is he the guy that played the one tall cop?” But Hill as Finkel and Franco as Longo deliver the finest moments this film has to offer. The exchanges between Longo and Finkel, all filmed in a small prison visitation room, are at times very powerful. It’s their film, as it should be, and almost all of the other characters serve as nothing more than conduits for a single, flimsy perspective. I do feel for Felicity Jones, though. They asked her character to do more than she was given to work with, always an unfavorable arrangement. One moment in particular—something likely perceived as an emotional climax—is so very misguided that it was like watching a wonderful talent trapped at the bottom of a well of terrible writing. Shame on that.
Goold’s failing with True Story is an inability to get out of the way of what makes the story so fascinating. The movie wants to be arc driven. All bad beats and stumbling paces, he’s trying to pull some kind of cat-and-mouse thriller out of a story that’s just not a who-done-it. Our betrayals are painfully on the nose, and our big reveals are foregone conclusions. This is a tale of two men projecting and reflecting so much of what they want to see in themselves and each other, truth and lies become multiple heads feeding one narcissistic belly.
The truth is malleable, synthesized through the unreliability of the human condition. Our view of the world, the way a particular adjective sounds in our head, using a certain noun instead of another, pure truth is an ideal appropriately out of reach. It’s easy to lie. And lies, knowing misdirection concocted from within, are dangerous in their authenticity. One event from 100 perspectives has as many truths. One lie, it’s personal, it’s handcrafted, it’s—even as inherent fabrication—honest, drawn from a contained perspective. True Story fumbles with all of this, but only in the peripheral. These were events filtered through one man, published on edited pages, and processed through the ultimate distortion, a film production. The consuming lie of it all is the most enticing part, but as with so many endeavors, a premium was placed on the belief they could tell a true story.