Anyone who’s ever reported a news story knows that the line between reporter and subject is harder to perceive the closer you get to it, and at some point you may realize that you’ve crossed it without even noticing. True Story, an engrossing drama adapted from a nonfiction book by Michael Finkel, recounts Finkel’s professional relationship with Christian Longo, an Oregon man charged with murdering his wife and three children. Finkel was trying to salvage his reputation after being fired by the New York Times Magazine (he had created a composite character from multiple people for dramatic effect); Longo was trying to con Finkel into publishing his version of events and granted him exclusive interviews for a book project on the condition that he maintain confidentiality until after the verdict was announced. These guys were made for each other.
Whether they’re made for James Franco and Jonah Hill is another matter—when the two actors, playing Longo and Finkel respectively, sat across a table from each other in a prison visiting room, I kept expecting one of them to pull out a giant bong. But Hill and Franco are both capable performers (Oscar nominated even), and the material is first-rate—not since Shattered Glass (2003), Billy Ray’s drama about the fabrication scandal that humbled the New Republic, have I seen a movie that better captures the night-sweat worry of reporting and publishing news. Finkel rolls out the usual fourth-estate moral tropes to justify the deal he’s cut with Longo; when someone asks him if Longo really deserves to have his story heard, Finkel replies, “Everybody deserves to have his story heard.” But the prosecuting attorney, having approached Finkel for information and been turned away, cuts through all this to the selfish nature of Finkel’s arrangement. “Why don’t you give me a call if you’re having trouble sleeping,” he tells the reporter.
Further complicating the relationship between Longo and Finkel are the murder suspect’s admiration for the reporter’s work and his hope of becoming a writer himself; as part of their deal, Finkel supplies him with sentence-level writing tips that often mean something different to the slower-witted Longo than they do to him. At one point Finkel isolates a particular phrase and explains to Longo that it’s a “wink,” a signal to the reader that he and the writer are in on a secret together; later, after Longo has given testimony at the trial, he looks to Finkel in the gallery and gives him a conspiratorial wink. It’s the queasiest moment in a movie that questions whether any story can really be credible when both the writer and the subject have everything to gain from it. v