Movie review: ‘True Story’ missed the who and the why

What It’s About

In the complicated, convoluted crime drama “True Story,” a disgraced journalist seeks redemption through a family man accused of murdering his wife and three children. Both opportunists, just who is exploiting whom is the real question.

Based on the odd jailhouse relationship between Christian Longo (James Franco) and New York Times reporter Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), this movie is hampered by languid pacing and few moments of tension. There isn’t much mystery and there are certainly no thrills, but there are a number of uneasy scenes.

First-time director Rupert Goold strips down the story, focusing primarily on the strange friendship that grew out of identity theft — Longo, on the lam in Mexico, pretended to be Finkel — but too many nagging questions remain. He has drained all the color out of what could have been a far more interesting piece.

Is Longo a cold, calculating killer manipulating a person who could help him? If you are unfamiliar with the case, I won’t spoil the outcome. But it’s pretty clear from the start what happened and who these people really are. Not that you care.


Real-life friends James Franco and Jonah Hill work well together, but they are playing unsympathetic characters that you grow to dislike even more as the story unfolds. Mike Finkel might play down his ethical breach as a journalist, but he is not a trustworthy reporter. Both Finkel and Longo use each other for personal gain. The movie’s structure doesn’t take advantage of their individual strengths as actors, as they play moribund guys wallowing in their own pity parties in too many turgid scenes.

Franco effectively displays a hint of danger simmering underneath his effortless charm. With Longo, you never know if he’s being fake or genuine. Hill is capable of mature grown-up roles, yet with this guy every moment is suspect.

Poor Felicity Jones. Oscar-nominated for “The Theory of Everything,” she must play Jill, the supportive yet unappreciated girlfriend keeping the home fires burning in a remote Montana log cabin. Her one big scene, confronting Longo in prison, was manufactured to give her more to do, apparently.

What Works

The judicial system is portrayed accurately and fairly, and the court scenes are realistic. The director has concentrated on the two men’s relationship, and does not complicate the story with many other people. Goold, with a theater background, has staged scenes very well.

What Doesn’t Work

If you title a movie “True Story,” you shouldn’t mess with the facts. Not that it hampered either Longo or Finkel in telling their side of their stories. But you are at a disadvantage from the get-go if you fictionalize certain events in a script inspired by a real-life case.

The erratic tempo is a distraction. The movie may answer some questions, but raises far more, and never really delves deeply into the “WHY?”

Ultimately, the result is a soapy bromantic tabloid piece that is better served on “48 Hours Mystery” or a Lifetime made-for-TV movie.