In 'True Story,' A Shamed Journalist Interviews A Fugitive Who Stole His Identity

In 'True Story,' A Shamed Journalist Interviews A Fugitive Who Stole His Identity

1:17pm Apr 17, 2015

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This is FRESH AIR. In 2002, journalist Michael Finkel conducted a series of interviews with accused murderer Christian Longo, who'd actually been impersonating Finkel when he was captured. Those interviews are now the core of the new movie "True Story" which features Jonah Hill as Finkel and James Franco as Longo. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Here's the premise of the film "True Story" - there's this New York Times Magazine reporter, Michael Finkel, played by Jonah Hill, who in 2001 writes a cover piece about the African slave trade. The problem is he can't find a main subject on which to hang the article, so he creates a composite figure. Bad luck, he gets exposed and fired and then returns to his Midwest home in shame. Not long after, he learns a fugitive named Christian Longo was captured in Mexico, posing as journalist Michael Finkel. There's strong evidence Longo, played by James Franco, murdered his wife and three small children and dumped their bodies in an Oregon waterway. Finkel decides to interview this liar, who stole the name of a liar. You see, Finkel doesn't know why he lied in that Times article. He thinks if he can understand Longo, he can understand himself. He even says to Longo, I'm hoping you can tell me what it's like to be me.

That's the drama of "True Story," and I think the best term for it would be dumb. Possibly, there's something to the idea that a guy lying about being a famous person has similar motives to that famous person lying to maintain fame, though even as I say that, I'm thinking - nah. It's a literary conceit, a hook for a book in which Finkel can simultaneously beat himself up and make you empathize with him. Finkel's memoir does a better job selling the premise than the movie he co-wrote, and Jonah Hill can't sell it at all. He's an edgy comic actor, who wants to be acclaimed for his seriousness. To play a writer, he sits slack-jawed, earnest to the point of having no journalistic wiles whatsoever. Meeting Franco's Longo in prison for the first time, he radiates inauthenticity.


JONAH HILL: (As Michael Finkel) Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Longo.

JAMES FRANCO: (As Christian Longo) Call me Chris.

HILL: (As Michael Finkel) Nice to meet you, Chris.

FRANCO: (As Christian Longo) Yeah, nice to meet you, too. What are you writing?

HILL: (As Michael Finkel) Sorry, it's a habit.

FRANCO: (As Christian Longo) First impressions?

HILL: (As Michael Finkel) Yes, first impressions.

FRANCO: (As Christian Longo) What'd you put down?

HILL: (As Michael Finkel) Brown eyes.

FRANCO: (As Christian Longo) That's not very remarkable. I'm sure that 70 percent of the world has brown eyes.

HILL: (As Michael Finkel) I guess so. I don't.

FRANCO: (As Christian Longo) You know, there's a mathematical technique that will determine how ordinary a person you are - not just your looks, but your whole life.

HILL: (As Michael Finkel) Really?

FRANCO: (As Christian Longo) By my calculations, I'd say I'm pretty ordinary. I've been decent and regular for 92.88 percent of the time. You couldn't tell that from reading the papers.

EDELSTEIN: That scene is like "Silence Of The Lambs" for nitwits. But Franco at least gives "True Story" a dash of perversity. Longo's defense comes down to the idea that his wife killed the kids, and he dumped the bodies because something. He's even less convincing than Robert Durst in "The Jinx." And the lack of mystery dampens what little suspense there is. To compensate, director Rupert Goold serves up fractured images of the child-killings all the way through, building to the big reveal in a way I found cheap and ugly.

Only one scene works. Felicity Jones plays the dull role of Finkel's supportive wife. But near the end, she shows up at the prison to play Longo music by Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who brutally murdered his wife, her lover and maybe his infant son. Then she incinerates Longo with a stare and declares that he's nothing like her husband - duh. The scene is absurd, a bone thrown to a gifted actress, but it's surprising and intense.

I had high hopes for "True Story" because I just read Jon Ronson's new book "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," which recounts the Twitter gang-ups on, among others, writer Jonah Lehrer and publicist Justine Sacco. If Finkel had probed his own motives, I think he'd have found that writing about Longo was his attempt to fasten on someone guiltier than he was, only someone without shame.

There's a bizarre contradiction at the end of the film. Finkel denounces Longo and takes what appears to be his final leave, at which point a title card says the real Finkel still talks to Longo every week. My guess is that much of the time they chatted about which movie stars would play them. Nothing vanquishes shame like having an A-list actor affirm that you're a fascinating person.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, we speak with Toni Morrison. Her new novel, "God Help The Child," is about a dark-skinned girl born to light-skinned parents.

TONI MORRISON: I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me.

BIANCULLI: Morrison will talk about her book, her life and being 84 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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