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True Crime

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 19 March 1999

  Directed by Clint Eastwood.

Starring Clint Eastwood, Isaiah Washington,
Mary McCormack, Denis Leary, Bernard Hill,
Michael McKean, Michael Jeter, Diane Venora,
Hattie Winston, Francesca Fisher-Eastwood,
Francis Fisher and James Woods.

Screenplay by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff,
based on the novel by Andrew Klavan.

Clint Eastwood seems to be one of the only filmmakers working today who makes movies because there is something in each and every one of them that personally interests him, that seems to call for them to exist as movies at all. In True Crime, he plays Steve Everett, a reporter for the Oakland "Tribune", and a screw-up in both his professional and personal lives -- somewhat removed from the types of characters that, twenty years ago, first brought him to attention. He smokes, drinks (less than he used to), womanizes, makes promises that he can't keep -- but he isn't shown as being cocky or vain about it. In fact, his self-assurance seems to barely mask his realization that he is at the point in life where he may be running out of luck.

Steve is assigned to cover a story that had been started by another staff journalist, the impending execution of a man, Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington), who was convicted and sentenced to die in San Quentin for the murder of a young, pregnant woman working at a convenience store. Steve lives by no particular faith or credo, except for what he calls his "nose" -- the innate journalistic instinct of whether a story or situation is true or not. After his first meeting with Beachum, Steve comes to suspect that something about his case may be awry. He has before midnight, less than 24 hours away, to prove whether he's right.

The film, which Eastwood directed from a screenplay adapted by three writers (see above) from Andrew Klavan's novel, tries to work in many different strains of material, to uneven effect. There is the matter of race, such as in when Steve checks the transcripts of Beachum's case and discovers that he was convicted based on the testimony of two witnesses who saw him, covered with the victim's blood, making a hasty getaway from the crime scene. The two witnesses who testified were white; a third witness at the scene of the murder, whom the police apparently didn't bother to check up on, turns out to have been black. The scenes of Beachum with his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and young daughter, on the day prior to his execution, contrast with those of Steve juggling, without much success, picking up and dropping off his young daughter with his exasperated ex-wife (Diane Venora). (Steve and his child literally race their way through a visit to the Oakland Zoo.) The authorities are less than cooperative with his inquiries, less they lose-face; the protestors seen outside of San Quentin are seen angrily championing the murder victim, who was young and about to have a child. Other people also try to take some sort of advantage from the occasion of Beachum's execution. And Steve even puts his job on the line with both his, also exasperated, city editor (Denis Leary), and the newspaper's editor-in-chief (James Woods), who also happens to know the value of a good story. Through it all, there is the continual feeling that Steve is not just rushing back and forth across the Bay Area on the behalf of saving a man's life; he will also save his career, and himself, if he can prove that he's right and come up with a big journalistic coup.

If the movie had successfully managed to integrate everything that's been poured into it, and to turn or subvert the clichés of a prison execution drama, it might have emerged as something more than it is. In the end, the picture ends up turning into just another race-against-the-clock drama. But even second-rate Eastwood pictures are, now, not without their merits. He pulls the first real good screen performance I've seen out of Denis Leary (who chews gum furiously in all his scenes, his trademark cigarettes having been taken away from him) -- Leary keeps his head up, maintains eye contact with people, and finally reveals that he can hold his own in front of the camera. The scenes with Washington and Hamilton have genuinely poignant strains to them, in unexpected ways. Eastwood also has some scenes with James Woods that turn out to be real doozies -- but some of the scenes that also have real dramatic bite to them are those with the actress Hattie Winston, who plays a middle-aged woman whom Steve visits at her home in a run-down section of

suburban Richmond. Winston's character is not unsympathetic, but, as she points out, there are stabbings and shootings all the time in her neighborhood, sometimes right outside her front door. Why aren't the Oakland "Tribune" reporters swarming all over these crimes? Steve does not have a ready answer to that. In fact, Eastwood risks making the hero of this drama look like a stumblebum, imperfect yet human.

He also ends the film on a curiously ambiguous note, where Steve receives no big laudatories or rewards for all the work he's seen putting in on behalf of someone whose existence he hadn't even known about until a day or so before. What Eastwood is after is something unspoken, something that states that, for every "big" victory that receives fanfare, there are other times when people have to content themselves with not being feted for what they've accomplished, even if it was the correct course of action. Eastwood risks ending this imperfect but ambitious picture with a thud, but it is because it seems like the right, the true way to do so.

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