No one is harder on the press, and less forgiving of ethical transgressions, than the press itself. Fabricating journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were swiftly booted from their profession in disgrace, and it takes little time in this somber, fact-based account for Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) to experience the same fate. His recent New York Times Magazine cover story about African plantation workers relied on composite characters (though he’ll barely admit it), and jobless Mike is soon back in snowy Montana with his girlfriend (Felicity Jones, from The Theory of Everything). No editor will take Mike’s calls. His career is seemingly over.
Then, deliverance. News comes that a Newport, Oregon, man named Christian Longo (James Franco) has been arrested for killing his wife and three kids. Mike doesn’t care about that; domestic murders are a dime a dozen. But here’s the hook: Chris was arrested in Mexico while impersonating Mike—he’s a fan! Now that’s a story—and, Mike hopes, a chance to redeem himself. Finkel’s book True Story was published in 2005; Longo is still on death row; and the facts of the 2001 crime were well-reported at the time. What further shock or surprise can be wrung from the matter? True Story mostly situates itself within Mike’s troubled conscience—which is certainly more accessible than Chris’ (if he has any), yet dramas of journalistic practice are seldom compelling. (All the President’s Men is the exception that proves the rule.)
Regardless of novelty or viewer interest, what really matters here—to Franco and Hill, at least—is the commitment to Serious Cinema. The stars and British director Rupert Goold are sure that Mike’s ingratiating himself with Chris, who has an agenda of his own, must mean something. Their character flaws and parallels will pay off, right? Hill has a knack for portraying earnest, sweaty, awkward characters lacking self-awareness (common to both The Wolf of Wall Street and the Jump Street movies). Even as Mike lectures Chris (who’s granting exclusive access in return for writing lessons), “I lost my obligation to the truth; don’t make the same mistake I did,” the phrase feels empty. Again and again, Mike falls back on the secondhand tropes and templates of a desperate journalist on deadline. The language feels right, but it isn’t original to him. “We’re not so different,” Mike tells Chris during one of their many (too many) intimate jailhouse interviews—but wait, is that just something he remembers from The Silence of the Lambs? (Meanwhile Franco gives the superior, quieter performance—free of his recent tics and mannerisms.)
As this rather pat and schematic movie drags toward Chris’ trial and inevitable betrayal of Mike, it does remind you of Bennett Miller’s far superior Capote—only Truman Capote used In Cold Blood to build his journalistic reputation, not to restore it. While Mike keeps insisting on his “second chance,” you wish the movie weren’t so aligned with that goal. Finkel recently wrote in Esquire of Longo, “The one thing he could never do was admit to his wife that he was anything less than a success.” But as usual, he’s really talking about himself.
TRUE STORY Opens Fri., April 17 at Guild 45th, Bainbridge, Pacific Place, Lincoln Square, and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.