True Story. It is arguably among the top contenders for absolute worst book (and film) title of modern times. Modern times, because one could see it working with, say, Edwardian or Victorian-era audiences in a lovely linen hardback cover with a jaunty and artistic font. Perhaps a deeply pigmented bold lemon yellow text embossed on a wheat coloured linen fabric. With some embellishments, of course.
The Victorian age was a banner time for the mystery or crime piece of fiction, whether true, wildly fictional, or urban legend. From broadsides, one-sheets sold for a few shillings in the street, affordable for even the most humble working person, to the 20th century’s serials in magazines and radio, nothing brings the people together around the fire like a spot of creepy chills. There are darker impulses in most of us, elements of schadenfreude, smug superiority about our (presumed better) judgement, or an excuse to pray for continued good luck in an increasingly dark world where the boogeyman is always wearing a new face but is never gone. Where grown ups know they have to check under their own beds and basements now, and can no longer hope someone else will do it. Where Hollywood and the world itself has thrust evil upon us in tandem, so regularly as entertainment, unchecked and boundary-pushing for the past 40 years.
Crime as entertainment is a cultural staple today, one that must be carefully approached as there are few rules anymore about decorum, privacy, access to crime scene photos, or a notion of what is fit for public consumption (everything. Some of you want to see everything.) While older mysteries, with a bit of time and distance, such as those that come to the forefront again as cold cases, can feel like a worthy bit of info-tainment, the newer brand of crime reporting and armchair detectives breaking Google to crack a case on Reddit, often while it is still fresh, turns quickly ghastly and can damage real case work and obscure the facts in a flurry of rumour and theorizing (which gets hopelessly commingled, a tainted sample.)
Things have kicked up in the last few years within the online world of sleuths. The Ariel Castro case as well as other recent cases of women held in captivity (and found alive, for a change) has raised the stakes as a culture of true crime fans (traditionally, largely made up of women) who grew up reading all the books from Ann Rule’s first hand Ted Bundy book The Stranger Beside Me to all the lesser ones that flooded the shelves in the 90s and 2000s found renewed energy as well as new depths of depravity in the basement dungeons of a new kind of sicko than we’ve grown used to. Serial, the new podcast launched in 2015, tapped into a burgeoning culture of listeners who gathered online to “solve” an almost 20 year old case, a success story that vastly outgrew its own goals: to tell a story, not solve a case or exonerate a man some argued was a wrongly convicted party. And certainly not to bring justice to a victim (whose side of the story is almost muted and most certainly obscured here, all because her still grieving family declined to participate).
Serial also inadvertently revealed a disturbing trend among seasoned True Crime amateur sleuths: after years of burn out on Law & Order, CSI, American Justice, Cold Case, Dateline, endless books, and ever-more serial killers (real and fictional) no one seems content to believe in Occam’s Razor- that the simplest explanation is usually the better one. If a teenager’s strangled body was found carelessly buried in a city park, it is not a stretch to look at her ex-boyfriend as a prime suspect, while carefully ruling out more outside scenarios as well. The burnout factor has extended to the way we now look at even old, already confusing and woefully messed up cases from 20 years ago: witness the never solved murder of poor JonBenet Ramsay, aged 6, flames of which have been restoked in 2016 most irresponsibly and shamefully by a group who’ve claimed to prove an idiotic theory fingering the victim’s then 9-year old brother over a pineapple snack. (He’s just sued CBS for big money, which seems correct.) Ramsay, who’s never given interviews or played into the modern, early internet frenzied media game that ruined a family as well as ensuring a case would never see justice, finally submitted to Dr. Phil amid this trumped up furor only to be convicted by a public who should be savvy enough by now not to convict a young man on his facial expressions. How far we’ve come, only to fall into the same idiocy as our Victorian ancestors who used phrenology to convict killers and hunt down men suited for domestic life, all by the shape of their foreheads.
Drifting out there, unremarked upon for years among more high profile cases and finally rising up from the muck where its creators reside, is an old, tragically under-reported (even forgotten) case from 2001 of the brutal and senseless murders of an entire family by husband and father Christian Longo, a man who killed his wife Mary Jane, son Zachery (aged 4), and daughters Sadie (aged 3) and Madison (aged 2).
What is important about this case is the sad truth that it happened even while Mary Jane’s family was frantically searching for her and Longo had left a swirling paper trail of fraud and cons in his wake for a number of years. What is most shocking and dreadful about this story is that a man seemingly just got tired of the failed family life he had created, and unlike the crime of passion where a lover kills to say, “if I can’t have you no one will” Longo, quite dispassionately seemed to say “I don’t want you and I don’t want you to exist to remind me of my failures, either.” Worst of all, this cipher of a man handled his pre-meditated crimes in ways that were extra-disturbing, extra-painful and even torturous, including an attempted strangulation, children dropped into freezing water, hypothermia, drowning.
Longo then went on the run to Mexico where he partied for a couple of weeks and found a young woman to con and sleep with before being brought down by the FBI & Mexican officials after a stint on the 10-most wanted list and a month-long manhunt. While an argument might be made that Longo should receive his death penalty by one or more of the methods he used on his innocent small children, he sits on Death Row in Oregon (which currently has suspended executions in that state), for the rest of his life.
With sincere apologies to sensitive folks out there, these details were disclosed because they are pertinent to know for anyone considering giving either their money or time to a book called True Story or a film by the same name, starring two of current-day Hollywood’s crop of “bros”, James Franco and Jonah Hill. It seems important to know the clear, unvarnished proven facts of this case and these terrible crimes without the window dressing that comes with book or film projects with agendas to sell you their products, while paying no attention to the man behind the curtain. And sometimes the man behind the curtain is just as toxic for society as his bro on the other side of the plexiglass visitor window. Such is the state of some of the media today, and the case of writer Michael Finkel and his friend of many years, Christian Longo, who gave him back his career, his name, and an income stream, all on the backs of three dead children and one dead woman, like so many victims we’ve seen before, who had the misfortune to love a sociopath.
Michael Finkel and the book and film that bear his name and that woefully uncreative (and fairly misleading) title would have you believe that the real story, the real hook of all of this mundane death and a cruelly obliterated family, is centered around happenstance: you see, dear readers, when Longo fled to Mexico after murdering his family and dumping their bodies for a passersby to find, he randomly had used the alias “Michael Finkel” and created a cover story of himself as he imagined the minorly famous journalist to be, doing a story, with time to spend on the beach and enjoy the local vacation offerings (sex, drugs, booze, sun and self-delusion).
Michael Finkel has willingly sold himself through years of research, book writing, and now film rights as a kindred soul to Longo, something fated in this happenstance: that he would be fired for faking his stories in The New York Times Magazine on the same day as he would hear of a fugitive who was caught living under his name. It must mean something. And he was desperate enough for a sign from the universe that he was not a loser who flamed out from one million people’s actual dream job (and his own) to put his eggs in this one basket, at a stab for relevancy, to become topical again, to follow a story somewhere.
It seems a given that had Finkel not been freshly fired and internationally humiliated for his own ethical failures, the news that some murderer had briefly used his name and identity (informally) as a cover would have been no more than a passing flicker of annoyance or interest, a moment of creepiness. This was a grisly story too lowbrow for what he was days ago, a world-class journalist. He would have gone back to his poker game, or his drink, or his next trip. It would have been forgotten. Longo’s trial would have gained less and less national interest and he would have quietly gone into obscurity, as all of his ilk who literally kill their loved ones for a bit of cheap shine in the papers, deserve.
The cravenness, ego-driven acrobatics of both of these men and the way this story was obscured to make it suit them are almost as shocking as the cold-blooded crimes that pervade American culture like a bad smell. Because it was all done in daylight. The story long over, Finkel’s insertion of himself as “narrator/conscience(benefactor)” would mean getting his hands so dirty they might never be clean again, and throwing a few dead victims to the side (like his firing offence of carelessly combining narratives in a “composite” in his last NYT piece, never dreaming that people faraway from Manhattan might read the article or call foul on it.) The dead cannot call foul, at all. And have so few advocates to speak for them. In this case, the dead were utterly failed (if not attacked again) as a disgraced reporter cast them in background roles, practically unnamed, almost composite, for the bromance story he found more novel. More convenient, certainly, for the men who lived to tell the tale. More salable.
So the world got a book it didn’t need called True Story, and in 2015, 15 years later, inexplicably, at the request of no one save its stakeholders, True Story the movie. Finkel has apparently dined well on proceeds of this one story and his connection to Longo in interviews and one lengthy piece in Esquire which one suspects may have brought a lot of deserved pitchforks his way, wherein he disclosed bon mots of Longo’s colourful life on Death Row and the revelation that Finkel both considers the killer a friend and speaks to him on the first Sunday of every month, up to the present day (even as Finkel has married and become the father to three children himself. More kismet!) Esquire published colourful tales of Longo’s death row lifestyle & continued cons, the worst of which is his Finkel-initiated idiotic & appalling quest to spearhead an organ donation program for people like himself, a way to further feed his bottomless ego, perpetuate his insult to 4 murdered people (and other victims) and in fact attempt to control the matters of his own theoretical death and beyond.) Laws ought to be enacted to ensure nuisance projects like this never get before a judge, or the public eye, again.
Finkel seems to have recently distanced himself geographically (relocating to Europe) and with the film’s profile sparking public rage, he’s answered Twitter questions from the curious that he’s not spoken to Longo in a year. Why, one wonders, stop now?
True Story is a bromance. Two bottom feeders need each other and use each other to advance their own callous, cold agendas, a very Hollywood story indeed. While Finkel desperately needs a way to continue to feel like a journalist and salvage his badly bruised ego, and avoid the fate of some regular job (a punishment, presumably) Longo sees an opportunity to fleece one more mark from within prison, pre, during and post trial, and beyond. Finkel is to some extent conned to allow his brand (devalued as it then was) his actual name, and his life’s work tainted by this nightmare human who without his (dubious) wordsmithing would be just as banal as we know evil really is. Or he’s without much of a conscience.
The money came, some sort of fame came, but what is the true cost? Why wouldn’t a disgraced, once revered writer take his failure as an opportunity to be sure to put something good into the world, when the world is in desperate need of superheroes right now and the media is in a cannibalized crisis? Because. Because bromance. Because, hey. Longo was a really great guy. Funny, intelligent, witty, curious. What a mystery. What a puzzle. What really happened, Chris? (The rest of the world, all but Finkel, has long known. There was no mystery, no story to tell. It was plain. It was ugly. Despicable, and he deserved punishment and obscurity.)
Likely the elite New Yorker Finkel was never a True Crime reader like the masses. He probably thought it was beneath him, once. Too lowbrow. For he alone among a world who’ve been there, solved that, feel like we’ve narrowly escaped death by our wits and ability to diagnose, seems to think that Longo is of interest, a puzzle, a mystery to solve. As if we need the book to see how it comes out. Some saw the movie, in theatres for a whole couple of weeks before bombing hard as it deserved to, as post-millenial Bromance died on screen, and on a meta-level, finally. The story that Finkel has been selling for all these years since the arrest and even through the trial is that there is a mystery, maybe, since Longo had (then) never confessed to everything. He hopes that the public is willing to believe in an alternate suspect theory, even when the best this dullard murderer can come up with is to smear his own dead wife on the stand and blame the killings of his children on her. Tell me, Chris, tell me. Did you do it? (Cue suspenseful music. Jonah Hill looks off to the middle distance, emoting hard. – “Cut, ok. That’s lunch.”)
The reader and the audience aren’t asking that question. They knew, if they read the story back in 2001, or they knew when this story got renewed life by another more objective reporter who covered this entire story in an informative and not scummy way that it was as open and shut case as there’s ever been (that good story is lost to the riot of bad reviews for the film online, and the deserved ire all over the internet of many journalists who ask why this project was ever made). We know why, just like Longo, Finkel couldn’t bear to go away quietly, humbly, and find some other way to live without his name in print anymore, as was maybe his punishment due. Why instead, he would hitch his wagon to Christian Longo (forever) more closely and more boldly than Mary Jane ever did, and for longer than the marriage. The proof is in the pudding: the unsavory motivations of the egos of both of these men, their financial and their less tangible gains needed to be continually served at the continued insult of four dead.
The question central to Christian Longo, to Michael Finkel and to True Story is why does it exist and persist to cry for attention, carelessly and cheaply exploiting its horrific core murders while pretending there’s a bigger story than that to tell and to sell? One of men, one of friendship, one of “Bros”? These actors can afford to be more choosy with their roles, find something with empathy, something deeper. These mostly comedic bros who are affiliated with a world of pseudo-frat pack stoner irony of the by now worn-out Judd Apatow school make the subject matter seem even more of a senseless joke (naturally funny, they lack chemistry even as they remind us that they had just prior to this dung nugget appeared in a Hollywood meta-irony film together where they play versions of themselves. These currently overexposed actors are never anyone but “James Franco” and “Jonah Hill”, names more casually famous than Chris Longo or Michael Finkel will ever be, names and faces too famous to market Finkel’s brand (but conveniently, the writer’s real name is used in the film to ensure he retains his high-profile, tainted as that profile may be. Another ethical wrinkle in this mess.) But they were tolerable before attaching themselves to this putrid pile.
The full details of the murders are never admitted by Franco/Longo in the film, something which Finkel the writer and Hill as Finkel pretends to be an enduring mystery that prevents him from dropping the matter and moving on with his life (in the entirely laughable wishful nod to In Cold Blood in a book/film that bears no relation to Capote’s masterpiece. Guess what, boys? Capote had the cajones to call out the murderers for what they were and not play coy with the truth, for one thing. And he never got played, or pretended to get played, by a killer. And it STILL haunted and ruined his life, maybe his soul, something which may yet resonate with the promoters of these projects.) The film elects to show the graphic disposal of these children, in a moment of cruel & unexpected honesty, while for the rest of the film they’ve been shown as dewy Kodak commercial outtakes, voiceless. To read the unvarnished truth of the murders means going far away from the film, an infuriating fact after spending hours with the ickyness of these two mens’ minds.
The story of Longo and Finkel’s relationship (and Finkel regularly frames it right up to 2016 as either a friendship or a relationship) in a just world would be but a footnote to the stories of Mary Jane, and the truncated, no doubt lovely short stories of the lives of Zachery, Sadie and Madison and the misfortune they had to have Christian Longo for their protector and provider. They suffered greatly in his scam of a life, his false front as a business man, his upheavals and moves, and his fraudulent rubber check kind of love. They suffered further as they died, and the children were needlessly tortured because this killer was gutless and weak, infantile in his reasoning and in his capabilities to carry out his plan to free himself from his marriage. He’s just a big ol’ loser. And so is anyone who might be taken in by what he’s been selling for all these years, even someone pretending to be taken in for the sake of some blood money.
Bromance of this sort, in Hollywood, in lit, in the world, is dead. All of us outside that secret handshake from kids to survivor women (and that is almost everyone) are hip to your game. What the bromance most resembles in True Story is the trickery of a sideshow, of the dull cruelty mixed with misdirection that is the world of magic. Longo tricked the unsuspecting who loved him or encountered him in his life before arrest like a cheap showman. And, apparently (disingenuously?), “fooled” one man by withholding the terrible secret that the rest of the audience could see. Like most things in cinema, it is best explained in the voice of the good Christian (Bale) in the truly great film The Prestige:
(When revealing the secret of a magic trick to a child) “Never show anyone. They’ll beg you, and they’ll flatter you for the secret. But as soon as you give it up, you’ll be nothing to ’em. You understand? Nothing.
The secret impresses no one!
The trick you use it for is everything.”