Sunday, April 19, 2015
"True Story" reviews journalistic ethics, overlaying a controversial murder case
“True Story”, directed by Rupert Goold, does indeed offer “double entendre” in the title. The film is based on the book by fired New York Times journalist, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), disgraced after he fabricated a story about the African slave trade by combining a lot of interviews into just one character.
Shortly after he returns home to Montana and his wife (Felicity Jones), he gets a call that a captured felon Christian Longo (James Franco), jailed in Oregon for murdering his family, had stolen his identity (not very successfully) and tried to pretend to be him. Finkel goes to Oregon and starts interviewing Longo, and gets an advance for a book, called the name of the movie. Franco makes his character almost "likable".
Longo adopts a clever strategy to defend himself, pleading guilty to killing his wife and one child, in order to accuse his wife of having killed the other two children. In a way, that sounds superficially parallel to the story of Stacey Castor in New York State, re-aired April 18 on ABC 20-20.
There have been other important cases and books or movies about journalistic fabrication of deficiency. There was the book “Trading Secrets” by former WSJ reporter Foster Winans, and then the movie. Then there was the movie “Shattered Glass” about a TNR reporter, and then Jayson Blair (“The Fabulist”).
In the circumstances of the film, it would seem that Finkel could have provided a strong story just by spreading the narrative across the several real people exactly as they were told to him. It’s not very apparent why he thought just one character would really make the narrative stronger. Part of the trafficking issue is the number of victims. It’s interesting also that the film names the charity “Save the Children”, to which I contribute. The film says that the charity called the fabrication to the attention of the New York Times, and that the mishandling could be harmful to the charity. I’ll add here that I’m not personally aware of any detracting information about STC, as I am about a couple of other charities.
Of course, high profile publications from the “legacy press” have to maintain high standards of fact checking and integrity. This isn’t practical for amateur bloggers, and that raises some other potential legal and ethical questions. No one has made a major picture on the issues for bloggers, but I can certainly imagine one.
The credits of the film mention participants of the table reading of the screenplay. I’ve never seen this in credits before.
The film appears to be shot in New York State and LA, despite settings in Montana and Oregon as well. I had not been aware that Oregon has the death penalty.
The official site is here (Fox Searchlight).
I saw the film before a small audience Sunday night at the AMC Shirlington.
Picture: Near Hudson River upstate, my trip, 2011.