Originally a selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, True Story is now streaming through your preferred online service, and it is a decent enough supplement to your intake of big studio, big budget productions.
Based on the memoir of the same name, this film follows the loosely-based true account of ex-New-York-Times-author Mike Finkel as he writes on a murderer named Christian Longo who actually used the former’s name upon apprehension.
Jonah Hill and James Franco play Finkel and Longo respectively, and watching them being serious for change is an extemporal experience. At times, I couldn’t believe how genuinely solemn and gravitous they were, but at others, they seem to try too hard and awkwardly so.
Veteran director of the British stage Rupert Goold is the director, and his theatre background definitely provides for some interesting storytelling in the camerawork. At some points, for example, just because of a flicker in the focus or a change in the vantage point, we know when a character is being dishonest, and such revelation adds a lot to the dramatic experience in a good way.
The Christian Angle: Thou Shalt Not Manipulate
The most dramatically intense moments in the film always happen when we as the audience realize that one of the two main players has just used the other for selfish gain. Upon first viewing, it is difficult to catch while it is happening, thus the power comes through in retrospect, and some of the scenes, as much as I want to bash them, are authentically chilling.
The obvious example is author Mike using the incarcerated Christian’s circumstances to get his own career back on the gravy train. Mike tirelessly milks all the information he can from Christian so he can cash in on the memoir, even asking him outright on multiple occasions whether he is guilty of that which he has been charged.
But the more subtle example, and that with the most gravitas, is Christian using Mike. In exchange for the exclusive rights to the scoop, Christian convinces Mike to teach him to write more eloquently. Without spoiling too much, then, it’s a breath-taker when we see Christian use Mike own’s words in court to evoke the strongest emotion from the judge and the jury…even the wink…ooh, that wink…
The only thing that brings these two together is the desire one has to use the other as a step stool (and like all good thrillers, we even question that sometimes), and while that type of relationship makes for excellent dramatic ephemera, it isn’t the type of relationship God wants his people to have with either Himself or with others.
Because manipulation involves two of the worst human foibles: pride and deception. Manipulation is prideful because it seeks to elevate the self at the expense of others, and it is deceptive in that it goes about doing so subversively and pretentiously. And as goofy and as cockamamie as we’ve seen Hill and Franco in other films, they get this aspect of the storytelling right.
But that’s not how God shows us to “win people over;” instead, God’s method – and one of the unique factors of the Christian worldview – involves lowering and humbling ourselves for the benefit and betterment of others no matter what happens to us.
And if we can’t do that, we can at least be kind. After all, it was God’s kindness to us that first led us to repentance; the very least we could do, if we ever come across anybody who we think needs to repent of anything, is reach out in kindness like God did for us.
So if you’re looking to stay home from all big, bad, and explosive summer blockbusters – or if you’re choosing to stay home because it’s raining for the nth day in a row like it is here – definitely check out True Story and, if anything, watch Jonah Hill and James Franco not be funny for ninety minutes. Because it’s worth it.