Everyone wants their side of the story told — even, or especially, people accused of hideous crimes. So it is that the phenomenon of journalists interviewing killers has birthed a literary and cinematic subgenre.
Truman Capote's journey into the heart of darkness to write In Cold Blood inspired two film dramatizations. Janet Malcolm dissected such intimate crime reporting in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer. Listeners thrilled to Sarah Koenig's phone interviews with a convicted killer on "Serial." And now, in the film version of Michael Finkel's 2005 memoir True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, we learn how a fired New York Times reporter found himself shooting the breeze with a man accused of killing his wife and three young children.
Jonah Hill plays Finkel, whose meteoric career at the Times ended in 2001 when he was caught creating a composite character for a story. Unemployed and depressed, Finkel gets an unexpected call from Oregon: An alleged killer named Christian Longo (James Franco) has been using the reporter's name while on the run in Mexico.
Far from being chilled by this bizarre identity theft, Finkel is intrigued — and borderline flattered. In a letter, he tells the imprisoned Longo that his recent disgrace has already stripped him of identity. Maybe, he suggests, "you can tell me who I am."
When the two meet, their first interview is a Malcolm-esque study in mutual exploitation. Longo praises Finkel's reporting and offers him exclusive access to his own story. All he wants in return is Finkel's silence until after the trial — plus a writing tutorial. Tantalized by the exclusive, and the fat book advance it brings him, Finkel finds himself increasingly swayed by Longo's version of the truth.
That's where this film adaptation, directed by theater veteran Rupert Goold, goes off the rails. While the prison interview scenes are riveting — largely because of Franco's subtly creepy performance — neither the writers nor Hill quite seem to grasp what motivates Finkel when he's the film's focus. His character is a bunch of traits — "arrogant," "empathetic," "dangerously vulnerable" — that never jell into a convincing protagonist.
Outside of a few scenes showcasing his wild past at the Times, Finkel comes off as a generic viewer surrogate, which is a problem when the viewer is ahead of him. Franco's Longo may be charismatic, but he's far from credible, as his damning police interrogation tape (which Finkel watches) hammers home. The film's real mystery is not who done it, but what made this ace reporter so gullible.
That's a mystery that Goold and cowriter David Kajganich barely address, let alone answer. Instead of delving into the reasons for Finkel's troubled identification with Longo, they give us scene after scene in which Finkel's wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), serves as his conscience, drawing the conclusions he refuses to draw. We also get arty, spooky montages of Jill taking baths or playing the piano while Finkel types up Longo's story — showily evocative bits of filmmaking that don't evoke anything.
In other roles, Hill has shown flair for making us sympathize with hedonistic jerks, yet here, glum and muted, he fails to convey even Finkel's glee at snagging a juicy story. Franco fills some of that void by wisely opting not to mug like he did in The Interview. His heavy-lidded, slyly grinning Longo may not be believable as an innocent but makes a compelling study in narcissistic self-delusion.
With a more imaginative script, Finkel's story might have made a spellbinding drama, and the interview scenes hint at that potential. But what ended up on-screen is basically a lot of finger shaking at Finkel, a professional tale spinner who got spun. Imagine Capote without its larger-than-life title character — or Philip Seymour Hoffman's wonderful turn as him — and you have the drabness of True Story.