We are accustomed to watching Jonah Hill and James Franco ham it up through comedies like "This Is The End" (which was hilarious), but it is truly pleasurable seeing them together in a serious film such as "True Story". Literally based on real events, "True Story" chronicles the bizarre relationship of a disgraced journalist and a death row killer.
Hill portrays Michael Finkel, a lauded reporter for The New York Times, who fudges with the truth when writing a cover story in 2002 about modern-day slave trading in Africa. He is immediately dismissed and sent packing --- back to his home in Bozeman, Montana. Licking his wounds while looking for work, his girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones) supports them on her teaching salary.
Finkel's life changes drastically when he receives a call from a local reporter informing him that a man named Christian Longo (Franco), accused of murdering his wife and three children, has been apprehended in Mexico, using Finkel's name and identity as an alias. And whether one would consider it good fortune or not, Longo has stated in prison that he will tell his story only to Finkel.
Based on Finkel's own memoir, "True Story", which was published in 2005 to wide acclaim, and directed by Rupert Goold, who helped pen the script with David Kajganich, this movie has a riveting vibe one can't shake.
Who is Christian Longo, and why did he commit this crime? Longo tries many angles to convince the jury and everyone else, including Finkel, that he is innocent --- or only partly guilty. It's a stellar study of the human psyche, and so rewarding to watch Franco tackle the role.
The real Longo has been described as "charming, articulate and appealing", a persona which suits Franco perfectly. Those attributes aren't a stretch for him, but playing a cold-blooded killer seems to come naturally, also. Franco plays the cool, detached Longo with an edge, including a smarmy smile and a cunning "wink".
It was Longo's wish while in jail to learn how to write from Finkel. At one point in time in their discussions, Finkel teaches Longo about the term in reporting known as the "wink". When Longo turns to Finkel in court after a rather distressing cross examination, he winks at him, and Finkel realizes the truth.
We've seen Hill do this amazing work before in "Moneyball" and "The Wolf of Wall Street". But even this is a much different role. Finkel was deeply conflicted by this relationship with Longo, and Hill gives us every sense of those emotions. Finkel is also duped by Longo and harassed by the people who care about the victims. It's a torturous position, and Hill brings Finkel's doubts and fears to the screen in a believable performance.
Goold has provided his actors with solid direction, unerring in the scenes between Franco and Hill. It's impossible to get perfectly correct what is going through the mind of someone like Longo, but Goold never allows the script or actors to make light of the relationship --- or its importance.
Opinion: See It Now!
"True Story", the movie, is also the name of the memoir written by a former New York Times journalist whose relationship with a convicted killer resulted in his compelling non-fiction book, if not exactly resurrecting his once-disgraced career.
Michael Finkel was a prominent writer whose stories graced multiple covers of the New York Times Magazine. When he fabricated the details of a cover story about the African slave trade, it cost him his job at the newspaper, and muddied his reputation so much that he was blackballed in the industry.
In February 2002, the unemployed Finkel was contacted by another reporter who informed him that a serial killer named Christian Longo, hiding in Mexico, but newly captured, had been using Finkel's name as his alias. Curious, and also seeing this as an opportunity to resume his writing, Finkel met with Longo in the latter's prison visiting area. For Longo, he had long admired Finkel's writing, and declared that only Finkel could hear his story. The two forged a relationship, some might even say a friendship, and despite Longo's current status on death row, it lasts to this day.
Thus the true story of a man who killed his wife and three children is brought to the screen in haunting realism. Jonah Hill plays Finkel, and James Franco is chilling as Longo. Felicity Jones follows up her Oscar-nominated turn in "The Theory of Everything" to portray Finkel's girlfriend, Jill. Although it's a small part, Jones has one brief, blistering scene where Jill confronts Longo in prison.
Perfectly cast as Longo, Franco is the handsome manipulator we're not quite sure is guilty, initially, of the heinous crimes attributed to him. Hill shows again, after his Oscar-nominated role in "Moneyball", and his semi-serious part in "The Wolf of Wall Street", that he can handle a dramatic challenge as well as any actor.
First-time feature director Rupert Goold also wrote the screenplay from a script by David Kajganich, all based on Finkel's book. Goold is considered one of the U.K.'s major live theatre figures. Producer Brad Pitt, through his Plan B Entertainment company, sent the finished screenplay to Hill, with whom Pitt worked, of course, on "Moneyball", and Hill was immediately smitten with the story.
Once this sad saga picks up speed --- and it doesn't take long --- it's easy to forget these two stars were part of the raucous "This is the End" only two years ago. Yet here they are, facing off in a fascinating cat-and-mouse game involving the most egregious of inhuman acts -- the murder of children.
Interestingly, Hill and Franco did not rehearse their scenes together beyond the first table read, all the better to make their interaction more natural and plausible. It worked.
Opinion: See It Now!