In 2001, the New York Times fired reporter Michael Finkel after discovering he had created composite characters — people who didn't exist — by combining elements of several sources for a story about the African slave trade.
Shortly after that, Finkel learned that Christian Longo, a man wanted for the Oregon murders of his wife and three kids, had been claiming to be Finkel when he was captured in Mexico.
Finkel smelled a good story and a chance to rehabilitate his reputation by reaching out to Longo and writing a book about it.
Longo saw an opportunity to use a skilled writer to get his version of truth out into the public sphere.
Rupert Goold turned their relationship into "True Story," his first movie as a director and co-screenwriter.
All of them, for various reasons and with differing consequences, are guilty of changing facts to suit their purposes.
That makes "True Story" not only an interesting psychological study about trust, manipulation and self-delusion but also a commentary on media ethics and the search for truth.
It's made more interesting because Jonah Hill, who plays Finkel, and James Franco, who plays Longo, are real-life friends.
The movie makes it clear that both Finkel and Longo are calculating, scheming to use each other to their own ends. An interesting twist: Franco plays Longo as a laid-back charmer. Hill plays Finkel as rather cold about it, using his significant other (Felicity Jones as Jill), law enforcement and just about anyone else he can play to advantage.
The viewer is left trying to decide whom to trust, and whether Longo is innocent, guilty or maybe even guilty of some but not all four murders.
There's an ickiness factor here, because this is a study in moral tones of gray that is rooted in very real tragedy: the horrific deaths of three small children and Longo's wife.
Director Goold uses lots of close-ups of his principal players, as if to help his audience search for that true story in the faces of those telling it. Oscar nominees Hill ("Moneyball"), Franco ("127 Hours") and Jones ("The Theory of Everything") are all pitching their A-game in those close-ups, and that makes the search compelling.
Finkel has said he was struck by the fact that Goold sometimes altered facts in the movie. For example, he turned real-life written exchanges between characters into face-to-face encounters. That includes a dramatic confrontation between Jill, who has since become Finkel's wife, and Longo.
What's acceptable in movie adaptations, in an effort to get at the truth in a compelling fashion, is not acceptable in print journalism.
An unanswered question floats over all this: What is truth, even about ourselves, and how do we find it?
Stick around for the postscripts, which may change your opinions of Finkel and Longo yet again.
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Quality:* * * (out of four)
Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones
Director: Rupert Goold
Rating: R for language and some disturbing material
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Oakview