The crusading reporter character has a deep history in America. Superman, the very embodiment of the American ideal, chose a journalist, Clark Kent, as his alter ego. But even though we have the institution of the press enshrined in our founding documents, our portrayals of reporters reveal an ambivalent attitude toward the Fourth Estate. For every Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the truth about Nixon's corruption in All the President's Men, we have a Kirk Douglas as the cynical Chuck Tatum, the self-serving tabloid writer who jazzes up a story by letting his subject slowly die in a dark cave in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.
Jonah Hill's portrayal of real-life magazine writer Michael Finkel in True Story falls somewhere between those two extremes. When the film opens, Finkel is at the top of his game. He's had 10 New York Times Magazine cover stories in three years, and he thinks his latest one about slavery in Africa might just earn him the Pulitzer he wants so badly. But there's a problem: It seems he has conflated — or perhaps wholly invented — the lead subject in his story, and when his bosses at The Gray Lady find out, he gets the boot. But did Finkel punch up the story on purpose, or was it a mistake by a writer who was relying on translators and bribery to get a story in an unfamiliar land?
How you interpret the opening sequence of the film, based on a memoir by Finkel, will determine your attitude toward the meat of True Story's story. Hill is a sympathetic presence in the film, but his disgraced reporter character operates under a cloud of suspicion, both from colleagues and the audience. While he's frantically pitching comeback stories from his cabin in Montana (The Times clearly pays more than Memphis journos are accustomed to), he gets a call from another reporter asking why a fugitive from justice in Mexico was claiming to be Michael Finkel when he was caught.
Finkel finds out the fugitive using his name is Christian Longo (James Franco), an Oregon man accused of killing his wife and three children. Now, Finkel's got a killer story with a winning angle, and when he travels to Oregon to meet Longo in the flesh, it gets even better. Longo is an aspiring writer and fan of Finkel's work who says he is innocent. But even though he writes novella-length letters to the reporter from his holding cell, he won't reveal who the real killer is. With a charismatic, articulate white guy who is about to be wrongly convicted of murder as his protagonist, Finkel's magazine story turns into a book deal with Harper Collins. But is Longo really, as he says, a "nice guy 99 percent of the time," or a low-key Hannibal Lector?
Hill is playing against the type he created in comedic roles such as Superbad and 21 Jump Street. I was reminded of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where Humphrey Bogart played a completely unsympathetic and unscrupulous character, but his onscreen charisma made him appear to be a hero. Even Finkle's wife Jill (an underused Felicity Jones) expresses her doubts about his reporting skills, but he dives deep into the case, and we're along for the ride as he vacillates between the conviction that Longo is innocent and that he should be convicted. Franco has more experience at playing charismatic sociopaths. His road to leading manhood took a deliciously devious turn as Alien, the archetypal Florida gangbanger in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Franco deftly walks the tightrope between soulful boy next door and cold-blooded murderer, and his finely tuned performance ultimately saves True Story from the turgid, CSI melodrama the source material suggests.
Director Rupert Goold has roots in the English theater, and he's more interested in watching the sparks fly when he puts Hill and Franco together in a prison visiting room than he is in composing compelling images. True Story lacks the technical bravado of Gone Girl, but it's a worthy addition to the true crime genre — even if it leaves viewers questioning the meaning of "true."