Most journalism films get everything wrong. Either they punk up the reporters or make them into suave crusaders. What’s often missing from screenplay portraits is the underlying anxiety involved in the pursuit of truth: getting niggly essential details right while maintaining enough zazz to ensure an upwardly mobile career in a medium that’s steadily dying. True Story gets the mixture of narcissism and idealistic zeal right portraying real-life former New York Times writer Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) cut down after fudging facts on a cover story about African corporate slavery. Confronted by editors, Finkel protests the pressure that was put on him to condense his article for readability. “I never told you to lie,” answers the editor, and, just like that, the gap between the aims of journalism and its usual practices is made manifest — in an ambiguous way, I grant you, but this quiet examination of contradicting impulses is the ruling aesthetic of this very interesting film.
The other defining gap is in James Franco’s eyes. Franco plays accused murderer Christian Longo with an uncanny dead expression aimed mostly at Finkel, whose identity Longo has mysteriously stolen. Longo virtually hypnotizes Finkel into thinking this is both a great story and a shot at redemption; but we’re never quite sure what Longo wants. Franco is unnervingly good at creepy amorality. The final gap and the subtlest relationship in the film stretches between Finkel and his wife, Jill, played with mousey eloquence by Felicity Jones. When she finally comes out with a prison-visiting-room monologue, it feels cathartic yet remains distant and mysterious.
True Story feels too rich and ambiguous for a contemporary film. Movies nowadays have operatic affirmations; empowerment is their main concern. Only cable channels like HBO get away with antihero dramas without offending their audience. This is a character study riddled with ironies and narcissism; it lacks much in the way of a hopeful ending. It’s good enough for television.