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True Story

Fox // R // August 4, 2015
List Price: $27.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted August 12, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

I understand and admire films like True Story in that they are pretty simplistic from a storytelling perspective, and if the performances click than the film will work well. It is a formula that moviegoers have been exposed to, in varying degrees and levels of effectiveness for decades now. And in True Story there is an additional interesting hook for the moviegoer coming into the film. Leaving it? Well that's another proposition.

The movie is based on the book of the same name by former New York Times writer Michael Finkel, which was adapted into a screenplay by David Kajganich (The Invasion) and Rupert Goold, the latter of whom directed, and the film serves as the writing and directing debut for him. Finkel is played by Jonah Hill (22 Jump Street), who has just been fired from the Times after being caught creating a composite character in a story about Africa. He learns that someone has been using his name as an alias in Mexico, a man named Christian Longo (James Franco, Oz The Great and Powerful). Finkel attempts to learn the truth behind Longo's crimes, Longo attempts to learn how to write, as he his familiar with Finkel's work. As the friendship deepens, so does the various levels of Longo's stories.

Some mild spoilers to follow, in the event the cinematic retelling of actual events could be mentioned as spoilers I guess.

I mentioned the formula earlier, and it's one we've seen in everything from Dead Man Walking to Jagged Edge to Criminal Law. Lawyer or some other legitimate person (a disgraced writer in this case) starts interacting with a defendant accused of a crime, they become friends, start to think defendant is guilty, when defendant is, well, a defendant for a reason. It is decent enough entertainment to suspend disbelief for when it is done right.

=While True Story does have a couple of tiny wrinkles in it compared to the other films, by and large the tenets of it are the same. And when it comes to films like that, the only other thing to focus on are the performances of the defendant and the legitimate person. Most of the time this is good, but in True Story, there is so, so little to really find appealing in either Hill or Franco's performance. Franco is trying to be some sort of minimalist with this character and in doing so, things that it will unlock some sort of strange charisma that will make Finkel or the viewer empathize with Longo's plight. But the film does not hide any effect to show that Longo did this stuff, from the opening scenes of the film in fact, so it hamstrings Franco immediately, and he doesn't do much past that to convince anyone otherwise.

Problem number two when it comes to True Story is, you guessed it, Jonah Hill. As Finkel, he is notably and immensely stoic. He was the one that cut corners to try and produce a great article (but only with the best intentions, of course!) goes to Oregon, from Montana, after finding out about this story, and when he starts talking to Longo, it is never really communicated why he wanted to do the book. If he wanted to do it as your prototypical victim bio/true crime kind of thing this delivery is muddied, if it is supposed to be a larger piece about Longo's character, it is never really explored. When Finkel finds out he is being played, Hill's reaction, one of anger and frustration, couldn't help but make me laugh. He'd had only one expression for the first 80 minutes, and now we're supposed to believe this last 15? Please. And the decision to foist Finkel's wife Jill (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything) into the third act is persistent and exasperating, as there is no contribution she had in the previous hour.

I'm not sure who said it, but when it comes to True Story one gets the impression that Hill and Franco, separately and independently of one another, said to themselves when they saw the script or the project something to the effect that ‘yes, this time is where I'll be taken seriously!' then they got to the set on the first day, or when they ran into one another the first time, and threw up their hands and said ‘oh, Come on!' That's an easy look at the film, but the fact of the matter is True Story has bigger problems than that.

The Blu-ray:
The Video:

Fox presents True Story with an AVC encode and a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer which, the overall results are excellent. Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior) is the Director of Photography and the results are excellent, which is both simplistic and razor sharp. Be prepared for a lot of white in the film, whether it is snow or the artificial lighting of prison. They are reproduced accurately, are not overblown and against Franco's prison garb, a nice contrast is set. Image detail in clothing or Franco's facial hair is abundant throughout, image noise is minimal and the quality of the visuals looks very good on Blu-ray.

The Sound:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track does not have a lot to do, but what it does is commendable. The film's score sounds clear and the soundstage is decent, albeit a little limited by the source material. Directional effects and channel panning are scarce, though the dialogue is consistent through the film. I wish it had more to do, but no complaints overall.


Goold provides a commentary for True Story that is not bad. He talks about the decisions to adapt portions of the book and omit others in for the screenplay, gets into some shot and scene breakdowns and talks about the directorial intent in other components of it. The film is not that good, but Goold is at least passionate about it. Points for that. Next are five deleted scenes (16:44), one of which is an alternate ending, which, if you can believe it, was more pointless than the original.

A series of featurettes follow: "Mike Finkel" (3:33) covers the real life writer, "Who is Christian Longo?" (3:56) includes thoughts on Longo from the cast, crew and from Finkel, "The Truth Behind True Story" (4:03) is a synopsis of the story, and "Making of True Story" (5:26) is just that. It was sad to see some clips of film reused for what amounts to less than 20 minutes of film, but such is life I suppose. A stills gallery and a series of trailers, including one for the film (2:25), complete things, along with a digital copy of the film.

Final Thoughts:

True Story was about as mistake-proof as you can get for a story, and the result seems to become a vanity project for two actors who clearly do not show their full capabilities in it. Technically the disc looks and sounds pretty, and the extras are quick and forgettable, albeit a decent commentary track. At the end of it all, both these actors have done better, and done so recently to boot, so go see those movies.

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