This is the only way I know how to describe how intensely enthralled I was with the storyline and characters throughout the entirety of this film, only to walk away questioning what I had just seen. Let me explain…
True Story is based on the real life story and book of memoirs outlining that story called – you guessed it – True Story. The film adaptation follows disgraced New York Times writer Michael Finkel, played by Jonah Hill, in his encounters with alleged murderer Christian Longo, played by James Franco. The screenplay was written and directed by Rupert Goold and starts out with a somehow hauntingly beautiful scene of a young girl stuffed in a suitcase with a teddy bear falling toward her… nothing gruesome and somehow strangely serene. It really seems like everything about this movie is in harmony with a polar opposite (a true story about nothing but lies) and this first scene epitomizes that sentiment.
Cut to that same suitcase falling much in the same way as the teddy bear into a river, setting up the premise of the plot. Next, we find Jonah Hill (Finkel) in a run-down building somewhere in West Africa investigating the cruelty and slavery of teenage workers on cocoa plantations. It’s apparent, although unclear to reason at the time, that Finkel is bribing the young men to tell him some kind of story that he wants to hear. Soon enough, these falsifications come back to Finkel in a bad way when his editors learn that he had created a composite character for his cover story that was a consolidation of injustices performed to several of the young men at the plantation. Thus, Finkel’s credibility as a journalist is shot, he’s fired from the Times, and his future is looking bleak until an unexpected call comes his way.
It turns out that the girl from the first scene is the daughter of Christian Longo, who has been captured and accused of murdering his entire family. Here’s the kicker: when first asked, he identified himself as Michael Finkel of the New York Times. From then on, True Story follows Finkel and Longo in their discussions regarding the murders, the trial, and Finkel’s knack for the art of storytelling.
Why the long introductory summary? Because this movie is a character piece at its core… without necessarily the style of commitment as say 12 Angry Men, but a character piece nonetheless. It draws you in with such an interesting premise, and the acting abilities and chemistry of Hill and Franco seal the deal. A large portion of the film is right up in the faces of both these actors, which brings out an intensity appropriate for the story. They do an amazing job capturing the subtleties of facial gestures and tone of voice to really keep you guessing what’s going on inside the minds of both men.
To break up these visits between Finkel and Longo, a few auxiliary interactions are introduced between the main characters and secondary characters, including Finkel’s wife Jill. These separate storylines at first feel like they’re bringing deeper meaning to the main characters, but toward the end of the film, they seem more distracting than anything else (not as distracting as that scene from Ace Ventura constantly playing the background of my head… “Einhorn is Finkle. Finkle is Einhorn!”). But to shoot it straight, due to the intense character development and heavy focus toward the relationship between the two main characters, a movie like this can either be extremely boring or completely captivating. I found it to be the latter through the first ninety minutes. They started losing me in the last ten and on the drive home when I couldn’t help but second guess why a lot of those late scenes and auxiliary storylines actually made the cut. That being said, the ability to draw in the audience in the way that True Story did makes it a movie I would probably see again.