There’s a great film to make from Michael Finkel’s book True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. It’s too bad that the film True Story isn’t that film. The book was written by Finkel at a particularly low point in his career, following his firing from The New York Times for writing his New York Times Magazine cover story, “Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?,” around a composite character. While all signs indicated that this was a one-time ethical breach, Finkel was quickly made a pariah in the journalism world, where any sort of slip of this sort – once or repeated – is among the highest of offenses. Finkel’s road to redemption came with its own problems: he chose to investigate Christian Longo, a man accused of killing his wife and three children who also used Finkel’s name as an alias in Mexico. In other words, one unreliable source collaborated with another unreliable source.
With a different perspective, the film has the opportunity to show how this scenario can look from outside Finkel and Longo’s relationship. Both Finkel and Longo have certain issues at stake from advancing their versions of the truth, and seeing these versions play with and against each other should create for a compelling story. Under the watch of first-time director Rupert Goold, who’s also responsible for the script, audiences instead get a story that, in spite of the efforts of stars Jonah Hill and James Franco, fails to bring these complications to life in favor of respecting the source material.
The film opens with Finkel (Hill) in Africa, collecting details for his Malé story that come across as a swirl of facts and conversations coming through translators. It shows the difficulty that can come with journalism at times, which is worth showing, but it favors Finkel a bit too much when he’s caught. While keeping away from the world after his firing, Finkel leans about Longo (Franco) and the use of his name in Mexico. Finkel smells a story, so he reaches out to Longo to collaborate on a story.
Hill and Franco are fine here, even though the film requires far different skills than they’ve used in previous collaborations, but their work lacks a tension that this story requires. Longo is clearly supposed to be a sinister figure, but there’s a lack of darkness to his characterization that the film requires. The film is far more content trying to make Finkel and Longo both look, if not friendly, then at least somewhat relatable. The real-life story, recapped at the end of the film with an ominous final card about the real-life Finkel and Longo still talking on the first Sunday of each month. That alone sets off more alarms regarding the relationship than anything (and everything combined) in the film. That’s a problem.