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'True Story' Movie Review: Journalism, Crime, and The Truth That Binds Them

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Films

Hitting theaters on Friday, April 17, The Campus Citizen reveals an inside look at ‘True Story,’ the haunting and true story behind a desperate journalist, a convicted murderer, and the fate that links them.

by Benjamin Cooley


Knowing that a movie is based on true events often brings with it a heightened sense of credibility, authenticity, and inspiration. In the case of “True Story,” it also brings feelings of revulsion, bewilderment, and disgust.

Starring Jonah Hill and James Franco, the film tells the chilling events surrounding the crimes of Christian Longo, a man charged with the murder of his wife and their three children in December of 2002. Franco plays the eerie Longo, while Jonah Hill takes the lead as Michael Finkel, an ambitious reporter for the The New York Times who gets tangled up in Longo’s scandal after being fired for fabricating parts of a news story.

The movie opens by alternating between two scenes happening simultaneously. In one, Finkel is seen interviewing multiple African boys about being abused as child slaves. Later, Finkel combines these multiple testimonials into one boy’s story, effectively sentencing his own career in journalism to a harsh and sudden death. The other scene shows Franco’s character lighting votive candles inside of a dark cathedral, four in all, one for each member of his family. When a girl in the cathedral asks who he is, Longo opts to use an alias in order to lay low.

“Mike Finkel, New York Times,” he tells her with a smile.

And so begins the unbelievable, yet true, story of how Michael Finkel’s career was saved by a convicted murderer. After being contacted by a reporter from The Oregonian, Finkel writes to Longo in prison to find out why he is using his name. From there, the two begin a circular cat-and-mouse chase in search of truth, identity, and most importantly, redemption.

For Finkel, Longo represents the thrilling story that could lead to a best-selling novel and his second chance as a writer. But nothing is free, and it soon becomes clear that Longo has motives of his own. In exchange for the inside scoop, Longo asks for private writing lessons from Finkel in hopes of achieving his long-time dream of being a writer.

The dialogue-driven plot line of “True Story” is haunting right from the start. Despite his recent comedic roles, Franco pulls off the eerie and manipulating criminal part well with a stoic and calm demeanor, like a seasoned poker player who knows he’s already won the hand. Equally as surprising, Jonah Hill delivers a mostly convincing performance as a reporter desperate for answers and a second chance at his career. Thrown into each others lives by a twisted turn of fate, the two men begin an interdependent relationship that never fully resolves, and leaves the viewer squirming with uneasiness.

Even more impressive is Director Rupert Goold’s minimalistic approach to creating the film. The soundtrack stats audible throughout, yet remains subtle enough to go by unnoticed. From start to finish, the style of filming mirrors the creepiness that pervades the plotline, with plenty of close-up shots between lines, allowing periods of silence to speak much louder than words.

Thematically, “True Story” doesn’t pull any punches either. Aside from being based on the real events of a horrifying crime, the film constantly plays on the concepts of truth, identity, self-perception, and redemption. In the style of Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass,” a movie portraying the demise of reporter Stephen Glass for fabricating countless stories at The New Republic, “True Story” also brings up the delicate relationship between the world of journalism, truth, and the conflict of how far a reporter is willing to go to break a big headline.

But fudging the facts rarely goes unnoticed; for journalists, it’s the deadliest sin. In a troubling scene set in a prison meeting room, Finkel finds himself defending his actions to Longo, a convicted murderer, saying, “I needed the story to be ahead of the game.”

One of the hardest parts about watching “True Story” was that there’s really no one to root for. Aside from Finkel’s wife, played brilliantly by Felicity Jones, there’s not much for the audience to sympathize with. When left to choose between a lying journalist and a manipulative murderer, the black and white world of moral absolutes begins to look very gray. One moment, I found myself pitying Longo, which quickly turned to hating myself for pitying him, which then led to a heap of conflicting emotions.

And that’s where “True Story” really excels. People who are looking for a good-versus-evil, protagonist-overcoming-adversity plotline will leave the theater sorely disappointed.

This is not an easy film to watch. It’s not a feel-good story. But it is important that you watch it.

This film unveils some of the darkest, most authentic, parts of being human. It covers the whole spectrum of deception, all the way from combining a few facts to covering up the murder of one’s own family. It’s a chilling reminder that not all true stories can have an underdog victory accompanied by a feel-good soundtrack. In the case of “True Story,” sometimes the truth is last thing we want to discover.