Journalism on Film |5| Hard-Boiled Journalism: The Murky Nature of ‘Truth’ Within True Story
HeadStuff is currently publishing a series of weekly articles on how the journalistic process is depicted on film – the intense research involved in the practice, the time it takes to articulate a story, and the false intimacies that come with the interview process. In this entry, Nick Hilbourn discusses the idea of ‘truth’ in Rupert Goold’s True Story. Previous entries in the series can be read here, here, here, and here.
A key moment in the movie True Story comes after Mike Finkel’s termination from the New York Times for fabricating information in a story in order to make it more compelling. After packing his things from the office, two shots are juxtaposed: one side shot of Mike Finkel sitting in a taxi cab, slightly obscured and looking into the void of the screen’s opposing margin is contrasted with what is a side shot of Christian Longo. He is hunched in an orange prison jumpsuit, glaring apprehensively toward the absence of the film’s margin. Both men are contemplating the evisceration of their public lives, and how truth is a shaky commodity they have relied upon to uphold their idea of selfhood. For Finkel, the entire structure collapsed. Coincidentally, Christian Longo, accused of murdering his family and arrested after fleeing to Mexico, picks up the pieces when he assumes Finkel’s identity. The strange conversation between journalist and subject becomes an amorphous mix of existential quandary and detective story that takes the shape of friendship and deceit, both of which become unusual symbiotic synonyms of each other.
Finkel and Longo spend lot of time alone. They are seen looking off camera. The scene reaches its margins, but they look at something beyond it. It’s an inward glance. Looking within themselves, seeking validation. The look doesn’t change when another person stands opposite them. Concentration, approval, acceptance. You see the same look when Mike Finkel opens his mailbox at the bottom of a snowy hill after he returns from New York City to nurse his wounds or when Longo gazes at his handwritten manuscript and glances searchingly at the blank concrete wall in front of him. Both men are absent of something, they embrace the emptiness like a companion: a mailbox for Finkel, a concrete wall for Longo. That nothingness that they seek is elaborated in Longo’s question to Finkel in their initial meeting: “Why did you do it?”, he asks, to which Finkel’s responds, “I could ask you the same question.”
Both men essentially answer the question in the same way: “For a higher purpose.”
But “higher purpose” translates as “truth”, a noble endeavor that’s always in question in the movie. For what is truth? And What is justice, for that matter? The concepts have entered a gray area where the ground shifts with each new scene and development. The noble reaches of truth become distorted and holding onto whatever might ground them becomes Finkel’s focus, one that initially got him fired from the Times. Finkel finds Longo to be his second chance to restore his journalistic credibility. A book about Longo’s trial, in his words, will be “part true crime, part mea culpa”. His book will be a work of hard journalism, but one focused only on a darker side of the profession, the catalog of crime. Yet, a “mea culpa” is an emotional, persuasive gesture that puts into question the very word “true”. In fact, “true crime” has its own interesting problems. The phrase being wholly pertinent; yet, also inherently contradictory. It’s a rhetorical koan. Maybe that’s why the repeated scenes of both Longo and Finkel staring at nothingness is so important to the film’s cinematic structure. The crime itself, the mystery underlying it, is simple: Longo killed his family. Was he a narcissist? Was he mentally unbalanced? What about Finkel? Is he exploiting the grief of the victims’ families? These are the real questions. The crime itself is a foil for the exploration of the veracity of the concept of truth.
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My previous comment seems problematic, too. And it should. Truth is the biggest victim in True Story and maybe that’s for the best. The concept of it at the beginning is, at best, naïve. As Finkel confides in Longo at one point when he begins to question Longo’s guilt, “I got so caught up in trying to tell a great story that I forgot about the truth. Don’t make the same mistake I made.” Of course, as the single biggest professional mistake Finkel has ever made was based on a form of hubris and exceptionalism, Longo plays him along a similar meter. Both men act according to a sardonic notion of truth that even they can’t fully comprehend as unfolding itself between them.
As Finkel leaves the courtroom, the family of Longo’s wife interrupts his attempt to offer consolation. She attacks him for capitalizing on a brutal crime. When Finkel defends himself, noting Longo’s assumption of his identity, saying that he didn’t pick Christian but Christian picked him, the family member fires back: “He didn’t pick you. He used you.” Truth, or at least the illusion of it, becomes a commodity that has a sale-by date, a deadline. Finkel realizes this after an audience member at a reading of his now finished book asks him: “Christian Longo lost his freedom. I wonder if you might’ve lost something as well?” The same stare that regarded the film’s empty margin responds to the audience member’s question. Finkel is alone again with questions of self always at odds with the mechanisms used for its survival.
As a former journalist, I’d run into Finkel’s predicament before. Once, in an attempt to make a story more compelling, I failed to mention a subject’s police record because I thought it would’ve distracted from, what I thought, was the true point of the story. “True.” Hmph. I was not fired, but I lost a lot of credibility. I can see Finkel’s position. His story of human slavery in Africa has the potential to do real good, so why not stretch the truth if the means serve the ends? It’s noble right? This is a point Finkel makes in an argument with his bosses before they interrupt him and say that a lie is a lie. There is no ‘Noble Good’ to appeal to in this case. Finkel will have to sink into the murky depths of himself to see if he can pull out anything of use. One can imagine the dialogue he has with them is the same he has within himself when he stares at “nothing”.
The real generic machine I felt seething beneath True Story were the differences between a classical detective fiction (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”) and a hard-boiled detective fiction (Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the Black Mask series or the Mike Hammer novels). In the classical crime novel, the detective is always in control even in the most chaotic situations. There is a sense of removal from modern life and the plot lines move systematically. A platonic order keeps things moving from up on high. You can chart them out. A Law & Order formula (maybe the very early ones, not the Stabler-era where things become more gray and iffy in that realm) can be stamped on. However, Mike Finkel’s past sins in the journalistic realm bear much more resemblance to hard-boiled detective fiction. In hard-boiled fiction, corruption corrupts absolutely. The detective cannot escape it. The hard-boiled detective is far more invested in the crime. In fact, solving the crime is a personal vendetta. All the pieces are the same. Morality becomes difficult to discern. All motives converge with the “good” motives being portrayed as a weak or at least a cover for the real M.O . Hard-boiled hints that there might be some sort of rationality, but it also picks it apart. It talks about the retribution or revenge. Longo has no motive. Finkel and he are utterly tied at the hip by the end of it. The end of the movie reveals that they are still in contact, almost as if they were doppelgängers (a reference that is given more than once).
Truth, to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, is a form of untruth. The two are brothers that are often difficult to tell apart. Journalistic “Truth”, in True Story, sits at the crossroads of Longo and Finkel’s meeting. And, as the old folk tale goes, crossroads are where the Devil hangs out.