We all say we want it—the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But lies flourish for a reason. The truth can be boring. Hurtful. Dangerous. Incriminating. We want the truth, we say. But is that, in itself, true? Or is it a lie we sometimes tell ourselves?
Michael Finkel is in the truth-telling business. As a reporter for The New York Times, he uncovers uncomfortable truths and splashes them across the country, drawing people in with his prose, shocking them with what he’s found.
But then, in the wake of yet another Mike Finkel sledgehammer story—one about the modern-day African slave trade—another shocking truth comes to light. In an effort to make the story more compelling, Mike has taken the accounts of several victims and merged them into one, solitary source—a man who did not actually experience all that Finkel reports.
“Everything that happened, happened to one of the boys!” Mike protests to his editors. Sure, his main character might not have been whipped, as he wrote. But someone was. Not good enough, say they. Not nearly. And it certainly doesn’t disguise the nasty, ugly truth: In an effort to get yet another cover, to land on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize, Mike lied.
“I said write it up, not make it up,” his editor hollers. Mike is summarily fired and slinks back to his Montana home, wondering whether he’ll ever get another chance.
But as Mike is getting canned in New York, something else is happening in rural Oregon. A man named Christian Longo stands accused of killing his entire family—his wife and three little children. The suspect hid in Mexico for weeks … using the alias Michael Finkel, reporter for The New York Times.
The real Mike smells a story. He flies to Oregon to meet Chris, and the alleged killer offers him an exclusive in exchange for … writing lessons.
No, this isn’t just a story, Mike thinks: It’s a book. A big one. A lucrative one. A career-resuscitating one. So what if Chris hasn’t actually told him yet whether he’s guilty or not? He will.
“I think he trusts me,” Mike tells his girlfriend, Jill.
“Can you trust him?” Jill counters. After all, the guy did lie about being Mike. What’s to stop him from lying to Mike? Would Mike be able to tell? Would he even want to?
Mike wants True Story—the book he’s writing based on Christian Longo’s interviews—to be something of a redemption tale, one that will atone for his past sins and wipe the shame away. “I know a second chance when I see it,” he says. And to his credit, Mike is in pursuit of the truth. And when he learns what that truth actually is, he tries to do the right thing with the information.
Chris was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and he mentions that the faith was an important part of his life. It’s also where he met his wife. We see some religious symbols in Chris’ sketches.
We watch Chris struggle to light an electric candle in a Mexican cathedral. And when he asks someone why Catholics light candles, the woman answers, “So people get to heaven?” admitting she’s not Catholic. Letters spelling “In God We Trust” hang conspicuously in a courtroom.
In Mexico, Chris has an apparently nude woman (we see her bare back) lying in his bed. Mike and Jill live together, and we see them share a bed. During Chris’ trial, the jury sees a picture of Chris’ wife, naked and her breasts exposed …
… as her body has been crumpled and stuffed in a suitcase, her neck obviously broken. Neither that murder, nor the others at the core of this story, are shown in graphic, blow-by-blow detail. But we learn that two of Chris’ children were dumped in the bay 15 miles from Chris’ house and died from drowning. In flashback, we see one of the sleepy children slowly carried to the edge of the rail, his little hands clasped around the murderer in a tired hug. We hear the splash. Chris’ wife and 2-year-old daughter were also dumped in a body of water after being brutalized and crammed into suitcases. The police report suggests that both had been choked. And we hear quite a few other gruesome details about their final minutes, as well as verbal images detailing a smothering and another assault. Pictures of bodies are shown after they were pulled from the water.
Jill plays a classical requiem written by someone who killed his wife, her lover and his own child in a fit of jealous rage—smashing the baby’s head against a piece of furniture. She says the music is almost beautiful enough to make her forget it’s the work of a monster, “But not quite.” We hear about African boys being beaten with chains. Chris talks about his wife hitting him.
Eight f-words and half that many s-words. We hear a handful of interjections of “p—y” and one of “a–.”
Reporters talk about going out for drinks.
Chris admits that the pressure of trying to feed a five-person family with his limited earning potential (he was a barista at Starbucks) got to him, and he began stealing and cheating people out of things. Mike plays poker with fellow reporters at the Times. He gives money to a source in exchange for information (a questionable practice in journalism).
True Story is based on, well, a true story. Now almost 15 years after Michael Finkel was fired from The New York Times, he still talks to Christian Longo every month. (He wants to “follow the story to the end,” he tells vulture.com). And he says he finds this movie about him brilliant but “completely unsettling.”
As well he should. Finkel is no hero in True Story. He is a man desperately in search of professional redemption. Onscreen, Mike wants this story. He needs it badly. He spends a great deal of time talking with Chris in jail, and he comes to like him. He even shows Jill a long letter Chris wrote to him, and the two of them marvel at how similar it looks to Mike’s own notes—the handwriting, the doodles, everything. “You could tell me what it’s like to be me,” Mike tells Chris when the two first meet.
As the story—and Mike’s obsession with the story—grows, he says, “Everybody deserves to have their story heard.” But Jill isn’t so sure. Maybe some stories don’t need to be heard. Maybe some lives don’t need to be understood. Mike wants to know Chris, guilty or innocent. Jill has no such desire. She doesn’t need to know evil personally to know what it looks like. “You will never, ever escape what you are,” she tells Chris.
Do we need to understand the mind of a killer? Is Mike’s work really so critical? Jill certainly doesn’t think so. Nor does the judge. He admits from the bench that Chris is a mystery to him. “And God willing, you will remain so.”
It’s a salient point as we encounter movies like True Story—movies with something to say, but say it in discomforting ways. Some say it’s important to engage with such stories, arguing that it’s necessary to dig deep into the dark depths to pull out what truth and meaning we can. Others say there’s little reason to muddy our minds, insisting that life’s too short and too precious a gift to spend our treasured minutes in the mire.
At the end of the film, as Mike wraps up a reading of True Story, he’s asked a question. What did he give up during the process of researching and writing? What did he lose? He doesn’t answer.
Sometimes we don’t want to know the truth, but here’s an uncomfortable one. When we sink ourselves into stories about immorality or outright evil, maybe we can glean something good. But there is a cost in doing so. We risk losing a little something, a little of ourselves, in the folds.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.