Review – The Truth Shall Set You Free… Sometimes (“True Story”)

Lies, deceit, and miscasting are the order of the day in this remedial suspense drama based on the factual accounts of NY Times reporter Michael Finkel and convicted mass murderer, Christian Longo. Based on a true story, ya think they could have come up with a better title!

It’s 2001 and NY Times star reporter Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) has just been fired. His latest sensational journalistic piece, this time about African child slavery, has been uncovered as untrue… even though he meant well as it called attention to a real issue. Dejected, he goes home to Montana and his estranged girlfriend, Jill Barker (Felicity Jones). Looking for work, he gets a strange phone call: Christian Longo (James Franco), who killed his wife and three young children, was arrested using Finkel’s name as his AKA. Whaaaaa?
Curious, Finkel goes to the Oregon prison where Longo is being held to question him about that, and thus begins a bizarre friendship as Longo reveals his love for Finkel’s writing and dreams of being a writer himself. Intrigued, Finkel wants to hear more and sees $$ for a possible book as Longo starts to expound on details about his innocence in the alleged quadruple murders. Sharing nearly 80 pages of letters, drawings, and ramblings, Finkel thinks he’s hit a gold mine of information, especially when HarperCollins Books wants to publish, even though Finkel’s name is mud in the journalist world.
However, Jill is not convinced in Longo’s sweet demeanor, nor is another investigator (Robert John Burke) which is vilified when (gasp!) Longo pleads to two of the four murders. WTH? The courtroom scene has Longo weaving a crazy tale of who killed whom and why, that leaves Finkel’s head spinning. . .especially when Finkel hears HIS own words being used by Longo during his confession. The ending is just as bizarre (but all true, as the end credits tell you) as Finkel gets his book published and Longo gets some some quiet time in the Big House.
Directed by fledgling Rupert Goold, (who only directed stage plays up until now), and plays it safe by doing the first-time director’s standard “point ‘n’ shoot” direction, which is okay, but it really disappoints in a film that already had low marks against it going in. I’m taking about the miscasting of Hill and Franco. These two noted and skilled comedians are clearly not cut out for this dramatic piece of work. Hill lacks the emotional depth for his Finkel and Franco, as the sinister and creepy Longo, is lost as to how to play evil personified. His smirks looks like he just wants to crack a joke and play around with Hill.

While the REAL story is remarkable (Wikipedia has more) and there’s SO much more that this movie doesn’t tell you, there should have been more tension as to David Kajganich’s screenplay, which is slow nuts ‘n’ bolts style rather than tension building storytelling… and it probably would have sold better with a re-casting as well. Just sayin’.

Calling Northside 777 (1948)

Reporters and convicts go together like bacon and tuna. Sorry, bad analogy. Fact is, if a reporter sniffs out a story, they’ll follow it through to the bitter end, no matter what the cost. This classic Jimmy Stewart black & white “docu-noir” film not only told a true story about a convicted killer, but the dogged attempt of one man to get him released from prison.

Chicago, 1932, and a cop is killed inside a local speakeasy. Two men are quickly arrested and sentenced to 90 years, but did they really do it? Enter Jimmy Stewart as hard-bitten ace reporter P. J. McNeal of the Chicago Times. His editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), sends him to interview a cleaning lady who has taken out a newspaper ad offering $5,000 for information about that same 11-year-old crime. The ad says to “call Northside 777” if you have any info about that murder. The cleaning lady (Kasia Orzazewski) is the mother of convicted cop killer, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and she swears he’s innocent.

Naturally, McNeal doesn’t believe that Wiecek is innocent, but the mother’s “faith” angle will sell papers at the Times, so he writes the story. It sells so well that McNeal goes to Stateville Prison to interview Frank Wiecek. But instead of telling McNeal a sob story, Wiecek tells McNeal to stop writing about him. Wiecek had divorced his wife so that his son could grow up with an unblemished last name. Something about Wiecek’s sincerity, along with the warden’s belief that Wiecek is innocent, makes McNeal start to believe him. This leads McNeal to start investigating police records from 11 years ago and that’s when he starts facing opposition from the police and certain government officials into his fact-finding. Could there be corruption within the police force? Hmmmm…

Thanks to a new photo enlarging system, a key piece of photographic evidence is brought forth that proves Wiecek was framed. He’s released from prison, given $24K as an apology from the State, and has a chance to live his life again a free man, all thanks to gutsy crack reporter. And yes,all this really did happened!

Ripped from the headlines (I just love saying that) and adapted for the screen by Jay Dratler and Jerome Cady, this dark and moody piece is directed by the great Henry Hathaway, whose film legacy spans decades (1925-1974). You have a wonderful cast here, starting with one of my personal heroes, Jimmy Stewart. The man works so effortless on screen that it’s a joy to watch him. Then you have Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte who are just old-school terrific.

This movie is solid in it’s script and tells a true story with nice noir overtones. Hathaway doesn’t throw any scenes away, but rather knows exactly where to put the camera for the perfect angle; credit that to his decades of direction. And check out the guy who gives Wiecek his polygraph (lie detector) test… that’s Leonarde Keeler, the inventor of the polygraph

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