Daring to tell a ‘True Story’

Lying is all about performance

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Jonah Hill as Michael Finkel and James Franco as Christian Longo in “True Story”; Rating: R, Grade: B+

There’s a sneaky logic to the old adage – “All stories are true” (which John Edgar Wideman wisely sampled as the title for a collection of short stories) – especially when, on the face of things, it appears that they (the stories) aren’t true. Truth is a tricky and peculiar element, hard to grab and hold, impossible to pin to the wall, and yet it is the final and unassailable proof, immutable and absolute.

How can it be all of these things, even when the story containing “the truth” is, or can be proven to be, false (more than that – a lie)?

Journalists want to believe, sometimes, that the power and “truth” of the story resonates beyond the mere recitation of facts in the proper order. Does it matter if a horrific and astonishing incident happens to one person or another? If it happened, at all, that should be enough to shock readers, to make them blanch at the notion that it might happen again, to anyone else, or (and here is the titillating draw) to someone they know.

We come to realize that New York Times Magazine reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), a rising star at the outlet who plays poker like a champion because he can lie with a steely calm, has been doctoring the facts in his pieces. All it takes is one discovery to topple the house of lies upon which his precarious position is balanced and down he tumbles – from the dizzying heights of Manhattan back to the cold anonymous abyss of his home in Montana.

And it is there that it would seem that Finkel is destined to remain, if not for the hand of fate, embodied by Christian Longo (James Franco), an accused killer, a man who took the lives of his family and set off on the run, only to be captured in Mexico, days later, using the name “Michael Finkel” as his alias. He was pretending to be the writer Michael Finkel and when he is finally caught, word gets back to the real Finkel who recognizes the situation for what it is – an opportunity for him to take flight once more, to scale the journalistic heights anew.

The timing of the release from director Rupert Goold, based on Finkel’s memoir (adapted by Goold and David Kajganich), is quite possibly a bit too deliciously on the nose, as the media chews on the hard gristle of the botched coverage of the UVA fraternity rape story in Rolling Stone. And to top things off, we find ourselves watching the unfolding cover-up of the killing of Walter Scott by Michael Slager, a police officer in South Carolina. In each case, we are privy to the idea that certain narratives demand to be proven true, even if they aren’t.

Somewhere in all of this is a discussion about performance. What roles the storytellers take in the story itself and its presentation. It is instructive, in “True Story,” to watch Hill and Franco play their roles. Franco, we know, is a showman, and his version of Longo knows the power in giving his audience what they want to believe; whether or not it is true is beside the point. Longo cajoles and ingratiates himself with Finkel, in such an obvious fashion; it is nearly impossible to not see what a fake he is.

But, thanks to Hill, we are also granted access to an insecure Finkel, a desperate man who still foolishly longs for the kind of true story that is larger than the accumulation of individual details. His earlier work contained hard to verify facts, but the masterful spin of a storyteller in complete command of his globetrotting narratives. Finkel knew he had his readers on the hook and the thrill of the game was all that mattered to him. Hill is marvelous in portraying this degree of delusion, because he helps us to appreciate it as pathology, one that is as deadly as Longo’s sociopathic nature.

By the end, the real truth is a question – who is the bigger creep – and among the multiple-choice answers, sits the audience.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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