True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

Article published on July 31, 2015.

It was novelist Philip Roth who famously articulated the theory that American reality had grown so bizarre it beggared the imagination of novelists to create anything more fanciful in fiction. Truly, American culture and society had become what Martin Amis called “The Moronic Inferno”. The examples are legion, usually involving murder and mayhem, sex and notoriety and Michael Finkel’s True Story is no different.

Michael Finkel © Doug LonemanMichael Finkel was a top New York Times Magazine journalist publicly fired and disgraced for making up a composite character for an investigative news piece about Africa. The book True Story was published to general acclaim in 2005 and now a movie version has gone on general release starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. Having just seen the movie, I can tell you that Hill and De Franco bring precisely the right creepy vibe to this most bizarre story but the problem that burdened the book also burdens the movie; which is to say, the potential problem of unreliable narration. A talent for making stuff up is good for novelists; for journalists and writers of nonfiction, not so much. At the time of publication critics praised “250 pages of extraordinary journalism only an American in manic pursuit of a Pulitzer could have produced.” And that may have been the problem. Finkel had his eye on the prize and had lied before so why should we believe him on screen?

The book is about how a brilliant, high achieving journalist found himself at crisis point in his life; but it’s also about Christian Longo, a man accused of the murder of his wife and three children. While on the run in Mexico, Longo, an admirer of Finkel’s journalism, decides to pass himself off as Michael Finkel, NY journalist. When Longo is apprehended and charged Finkel visits him in jail to discover his motivation and the two strike up a mutually-dependent and deeply unhealthy relationship. Who’s using whom? And where does the truth lie? The viewer is never quite sure.

In April 2003 Longo was sentenced to death. He remains on death row while he and Finkel still talk by phone once a month. Finkel’s closeness to the murderer recalls Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood which never won the Pulitzer it deserved.

Jonah Hill as "Mike Finkel" and James Franco as "Christian Longo" in TRUE STORY. Photos by Mary Cybulski.  Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Jonah Hill as “Mike Finkel” and James Franco as “Christian Longo” in TRUE STORY. Photos by Mary Cybulski.  Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Finkel’s “manic pursuit” of a Pulitzer looks doomed but who would bet against the movie scooping an Oscar or two? Now that would be a real irony.

Watch a trailer of True Story

Bert Wright, Editor – The Nudge List
Michael Finkel (c) Doug Loneman

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel is published in hardback by Chatto & Windus
True Story is released in UK cinemas on 24th July (c) 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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