True Story by Michael Finkel
True Story directed by Rupert Goold, screenplay by Rupert Goold and David Kaiganich
Rating *** 1/2
Over the years I have covered a number of book and film adaptations. There’s something about reading a book and then being able to watch a dramatization of that story immediately after. Such was the case with this book and film. I picked up the book on my Kindle for $2.99 and was able to watch the film immediately after finishing the book. I enjoyed both.
I knew parts of the Michael Finkel story. I also knew parts of the Chris Longo story. I definitely remember reading about him spending time in Mexico on a beach with a German woman. But like so many stories that get filtered through a media lens, the stories were somewhat distorted. I didn’t think very highly of a reporter who was fired for falsifying a story. And my initial thoughts about that same reporter writing a book about a supposed connection with an accused murderer seemed too convenient. I was wrong on both accounts. I found both stories fascinating.
As a writer of nonfiction myself, I sympathize with the predicament that led to Michael Finkel’s firing from the New York Times. He was sent to Africa to cover a story about child slave labor on cocoa plantations. Finkel didn’t find evidence of slavery. What he found instead was a story of poverty and children forced to work the plantations to help support their families. His editor asked him to tell the story through the viewpoint of one boy. Finkel didn’t have that story What he did have was several stories from a number of different interviews he had conducted. So he took some creative license and combined those stories into one. Filmmakers do it all the time. That was his crime. I think the New York Times acted hastily in his dismissal. A retraction would have sufficed.
Not long after his ignominious departure from the Times, Finkel learned that an accused murderer was using his identity while on the run in Mexico. Thus began a relationship between Finkel and the man who stole his identity, Chris Longo. While Longo awaits trial for the murders of his wife and three small children, Finkel visits Longo in prison and the two begin exchanging letters. Slowly a portrait of a psychopath emerges. Longo has only a high school education and no skills, but he has a family to support. He can’t stand the thought of failure. So, he invents success through lies and deceit. He writes bad checks because he needs money for his family and his failing business. He steals an SUV because his wife always wanted one and he wants to be seen as a good provider. Finkel tells Longo’s story while at the same time reflecting on his own indiscretions and the mistake that cost him his job. Here’s how Finkel sums up Longo’s story. “My year with Longo made me see how a person’s life could spiral out of control; how one could get lost in a haze of dishonesty, and how these things could have dire consequences.”
Throughout the book Finkel leaves Longo’s guilt or innocence in question. This part memoir, part portrait of a psychopath, is also a murder mystery. You want to know hat happened and why. As it turns out, Longo gives three different versions of what happened to his family. And since Longo is the only one who knows the truth, you’re left to decide on your own which version is correct.
After finishing the book, I was especially interested to see how the filmmakers would turn this convoluted story into a film. The first two thirds of the film, with James Franco as Chris Longo and Jonah Hill as Michael Finkel, follows the book extremely well. The last third of the film the filmmakers invent some scenes that I feel were unnecessary, especially the scene where Finkel’s fiancé visits Longo in jail. I also feel that the filmmakers could have spent more time dramatizing parts of Longo’s story through flashbacks and less time in the bland surroundings of the prison. It may have raised the budget, but it would have provided more background for those who hadn’t read the book.