Blu-ray Review: True Story

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One needn't see many films "based on" or "inspired by" a true story to know that filmmakers fudge facts for dramatic purposes. The issue is: how much fact-fudging is acceptable? In the case of True Story, an account of journalist Michael Finkel and his working relationship with convicted murderer Christian Longo, it arguably doesn't matter much because the movie isn't really worth the time. With Oscar nominees Jonah Hill as Finkel and James Franco as Longo, at the very least there should've been some interesting performances at True Story's core. But veteran Shakespeare director (both stage and TV) Rupert Goold seems unsure what kind of story he's trying to tell and it fairly well strands both leading men.

It's not that there isn't an interesting story in here somewhere. At the outset, Finkel is disgraced and embarrassed after it surfaces that his New York Times Magazine cover story contains less-than-factual information. Hill, to his credit, offers a convincing portrayal of an ambitious, well-meaning writer who got carried away and lost sight of his professional ethics. Finkel can't find a job, but through a bizarre stroke of luck stumbles into a big story. Longo, on the run since murdering his wife and children, is captured in Mexico. For some reason, he identifies himself as Finkel upon arrest. It's a thin rouse, easily disproved, but when it's brought to the real Finkel's attention, he decides to pay Longo a visit in prison. Longo, charged with four counts of murder, is standing trial. The case appears to be heading a foregone conclusion.

True Story 3 (380x253).jpgAt that point, Goold loses his grip on what seemed like a promising story. I admittedly don't know much about the reality of the case, but if it's anything like the cinematic version then maybe we didn't need a movie about this. Finkel wrote a book (of the same name) about the whole thing, which I've not read and could be highly compelling for all I know. What Goold tries to do here is milk the dramatic tension between Finkel and Longo as they get to know one another, becoming quasi-friends. Longo professes extreme admiration of Finkel's career, hence the attempted identity theft. Finkel is promised exciting, new, and (most importantly) exclusive information about the murders, but he needs to wait to make anything public until after the verdict is passed.

Sadly, there's not enough context to let us inside either of these guys’ psyches. It's suggested that they share some characteristics, but we don't really get inside either of their heads. While one might anticipate their rather surprisingly unsupervised meetings (Longo isn't shackled and there's no barrier between he and Finkel within their meeting room) will morph into something approximating the Clarice Starling/Hannibal Lecter variety, that kind of "hang on every word" suspense never develops. Much of that is due to the fact that, despite hints Longo will reveal something to prove his innocence, there's never any real doubt at any point that this guy killed his family. Meanwhile, Finkel's wife Jill (Felicity Jones, so good in The Theory of Everything but so wasted here) comments on her husband's growing obsession with Longo. None of it amounts to much in terms of compelling storytelling. Maybe there would’ve been a good episode of Forensic Files in there somewhere.

True Story 2 (380x253).jpgIn addition to Fox's excellent 1080p presentation of Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography and DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, there are some worthwhile extras on the Blu-ray edition of True Story. Director Rupert Goold contributes a genial feature-length commentary. Goold also provides optional audio commentary for the 16 minutes of deleted scenes. This stuff makes up the meat of the extras, with a series of four EPK-style featurettes (totaling just over 15 minutes) offering scant insights (despite promising titles such as "Who is Christian Longo?" and "The Truth Behind True Story").

James Franco and Jonah Hill do their best to light a fire under True Story, but the wishy-washy storytelling prevents that from happening.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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