Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but usually it’s not: for every unbelievable true story, there are a thousand unremarkable ones that refuse to tell themselves. Great art can spring from the mundane, but rarely without a push. Be it a repackaging of the narrative, a fresh way to express it, or a uniquely empathetic vantage point, /something/ has to transpose the profundity of “living it” into “seeing it lived.” If the point-by-point truth won’t do the heavy lifting, a little finesse is necessary.
When New York Times journalist Michael Finkel was tasked with covering the African slave trade, he finessed the details and wound up unemployed. Unfortunately, True Story seems to have learned from his mistake. The film consists of a series of interviews between Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Chistian Longo (James Franco), and it’s resolved to tell the whole truth and nothing but. Verily a family man and all-around stand up guy, Longo is charged with the brutal murder of his wife and three children. Volumes could be written about the gap between who he “is” and what he’s done, and Finkel is promised the exclusive scoop. It’s a thrilling setup: as if Hill’s unblinking Moneyball character were thrown into Capote’s plot with a Foxcatcher slowburn (surprisingly, Bennett Miller doesn’t seem to be involved here.)
Unfortunately, neither Longo nor the film make good on their promise. Despite solid dramatic turns from both leads and moments of genuinely artful filmmaking, we’re never granted more than fleeting access to the killer’s psyche. Nor do we have reason to care about the unsurprising consequences. Despite Felicity Jones literally shouting the film’s overarching themes at us, nothing quite ties together. It’s a well crafted film with half of an interesting story — but it’s so committed to the truth, it doesn’t say anything real.