Politics & Policy

True Story‘s Immoral Equivalencies

Jonah Hill (left) and James Franco in True Story
The Goold film tries to build sympathy for egocentric journalists.

Because we endure media outrages on a daily basis — as in our acceptance of the way publications skew stories for political impact or cable-news announcers make sure we know their so-very-principled feelings about events — the new inside-journalism film, True Story, sheds no light. Instead, it is a weak, foolishly defensive elaboration of the problem.

Adapted from a memoir by Michael Finkel (played by Jonah Hill) about his dismissal from the New York Times for unsubstantiated reporting, the movie follows Finkel’s shamefaced return home to Oregon, where he takes on an independent investigation of Sebastian Longo (James Franco), who is imprisoned, awaiting trial for murder. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime story,” Finkel tells his meek, patient wife (Felicity Jones). “Don’t you see, this is a second chance!”

Viewers who pride themselves as “high-information” consumers may not want to give a flagrantly dishonest journalist a second chance, and they may possibly require that a movie (or a memoir) come up with more than a sensitive-schmo central figure. Hill doesn’t exactly fit the New York Times stereotype recognized in the epilogue’s photo of the actual Finkel — he’s a thin, balding, white-collar nerd, whereas Hill, of Hollywood’s teddy-bear geek fraternity, customarily plays bumbling ineptitude. This odd casting is key to what goes wrong in True Story’s disingenuous attempt to muster sympathy for Finkel’s ongoing series of bad decisions and his constant demonstration of bad faith.

Finkel sides with the devious murder suspect, Longo, who, out of cold-blooded temerity, had purloined the journalist’s identity, claiming a reader’s admiration. “At the same time you were using my name, they stripped me of it,” Finkel whines, complementing Longo’s audacity yet asking for pity at the same time. I didn’t expect a movie to so blatantly indulge a contemporary journalist’s self-aggrandizement — not even after Naomi Watts glamorized Valerie Plame in Fair Game – but the makers of True Story seem unaware that Finkel’s obsequious behavior is an insurmountable, perhaps inexcusable, narrative hurdle.

#related#Not only does True Story lack dramatic logic, it also fails to scrutinize the class difference between Finkel and Longo. It’s guilty of the same sort of white-collar superciliousness recently seen in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, which tried disguising its ugly yuppie premise as comedy. True Story does the reverse; it mistakes Finkel’s imprudent commiseration with Longo as some kind of tragic misapplication of journalistic zeal. (The revelation that the incarcerated Longo eventually became a Times freelancer means this is actually — pathetically — a comedy of arrogance.)

We should be encouraged to scoff at Finkel during the opening scene, in which he manipulates African natives to fit his publication’s sentimental political agenda. It is laughable — yet is not satirized — when Finkel defends himself with the boast, “You hire people like me to get on the ground and hunt. That’s how you get a competitive advantage.” He’s right about competition but wrong that it justifies dishonesty — and the filmmakers don’t seem to get the difference. Finkel’s relationship with Longo as writers and “misunderstood” men establishes the most dubious of all journalistic suppositions: a moral equivalency.

Throughout True Story (a lame title that merely repeats the deceit and unoriginality rampant in recent films), an unacceptable fallacy is in play. The fallacy is spoken when Longo first suckers Finkel with the observation, “Most journalists are only interested in writing what their readers want to hear.” In actuality, this is a canard that some publishers and editors use to control writers (more inside journalism) and the unexceptional Finkel falls for it; it appeals to his vanity as a “rebel.” A journalistic fraud and a psychopath — that’s the kind of moral equivalency this is. When director Rupert Goold films the prison exterior from the same angle as his exterior shot of the Times’ new Renzo Piano headquarters, is it commentary or coincidence? .

True Story makes a mess of the contemporary media class’s self-serving condescension and how it sometimes trips over its contempt for the plebs it pretends to serve. When Longo asks Finkel if he deliberately cheated on the Africa story, Finkel displays competitive-yuppie psychosis: “I needed the story to be ahead of the game, but deep down I don’t know.”

This sort of pseudo-ambiguity is favored by the least trustworthy filmmakers from Baumbach to Bennett Miller. True Story’s reality-based gimmick recalls Miller’s nihilistic prestige flicks Capote, Moneyball, and Foxcatcher; each of those films variously twisted private ethics and public image. Goold similarly gets caught up in Finkel and Longo’s ego games. His own confusion about ethics shows in the overwrought, overedited court trial and grim murder flashbacks (including a child’s toy symbolically falling through space in slow motion). These junior–Bennett Miller tropes are a new kind of terrible — cynicism with arty flourishes. In addition, the Longo characterization has, for example, none of the guilt-ridden complexity Burt Lancaster made unforgettable in Birdman of Alcatraz, and the snarky Franco is otherwise thoroughly unconvincing.

If Franco and Hill, usually partners in spoofs like This Is the End, thought they were doing a hipster spin on the Norman Mailer/Jack Abbott In the Belly of the Beast calamity, where a writer’s trust combined with a con-artist’s guile, Goold muffles their snark by emphasizing exactly the self-serious arrogance that makes dishonest journalism seem like a criminal offense. True Story is the kind of movie Franco and Hill will likely laugh about when they’re stoned.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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