The film “True Story” is based on a true story. But it’s one in which you’re never really sure of the truth.
It’s about Michael Finkel, a talented freelance journalist who did a number of cover stories for The New York Times Magazine until, in 2002, he was accused of faking the facts on an exposé about mistreatment of workers on an African cocoa plantation. He was fired, couldn’t find any other freelance work because his reputation was shot, then one day picked up his ringing telephone to find out from another reporter that Christian Longo, a jailed man, who had possibly murdered his wife and three kids, had assumed Finkel’s identity. Did Finkel, the reporter wanted to know, have any comment on that?

You can check out Michael Finkel and Christian Longo on Google, and find out every facet of what went down after that initial phone call, from prison visits to courtroom hearings. But if you don’t know the story, check out the film without any research. You’ll get as caught up in the strange turns of events as the people in real life did. A big chunk of what’s most interesting about the film is that you just don’t know which way the supposed facts are going to turn.

Finkel is played by Jonah Hill in one of his finely tuned serious-mode performances. When he’s shamed by his bosses at the beginning of the film, even though at that point you’re not positive that he’s guilty of embellishing his magazine story, you can see and feel that shame all over him, from his sad, wide-eyed face to his body language, which signals defeat. He goes back home to his wife (an unnecessary character, forlornly and distractingly played by Felicity Jones) in Montana, and becomes frustrated with every no he gets for every story pitch he makes on the phone. Then that call comes in from a reporter at the Oregonian, asking if he knows of a fellow named Christian Long.

He didn’t, but Longo has already been introduced in the film, played by James Franco, behind bars, wearing bright orange prison garb. On a whim, Finkel gets permission to visit Longo, signaling the beginning of a relationship that’s harder to describe than it is to recognize who in this film is telling the truth and who is lying.

“Why did you pick my name?” asks Finkel of Longo. His answer is something to the effect of “because I’m a fan of yours.” So begins that relationship, one in which these two seemingly lost men strike a deal that is supposed to help each other, a deal that needs to be based on trust. It starts with one of them asking the other if he really committed the crime of which he was accused (later on, the other man will ask the same question right back). It turns into a pact, of sorts: Finkel will give wannabe writer Longo some tips on the craft of journalism, and in return, Longo will answer any questions Finkel asks about the murders.

This is a story of second chances. Finkel believes that he’s stumbled upon the story of his life, and he might be able to get a book out of it, a first step toward regaining his career. It’s less clear what’s in it for Longo. He calmly claims innocence, but – and this comes out of the ever-underrated Franco’s acting abilities – there’s an uneasiness about him, facial expressions that appear to be relaxed but might be hiding something.

The script develops into a cat-and-mouse game. One of the guys already has a black mark on him that has made him a pariah. The other, with a mantra of “I can’t tell you what really happened,” might be innocent, but might be a heinous killer. Are they really helping each other, or are they playing each other for personal gain? If you don’t go to Google to find out, this movie will keep you guessing.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

TRUE STORY
Written by Rupert Goold and David Kajganich; directed by Rupert Goold
With Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones
Rated R