movie review by
Gary Johnson


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True Crime
With True Crime, Clint Eastwood continues to redefine his screen image. This time he plays a newspaper reporter who can't resist the ladies. With amazing regularity, he ends up in bed with the wives of his bosses. This type of role isn't altogether unusual for Eastwood. In Play Misty for Me, he played a womanizing radio DJ and in The Beguiled he played a soldier who takes advantage of several young ladies at a girls' school. But in his most famous roles--such as his "man with no name" in A Fistful of Dollars and his laconic police detective in Dirty Harry--Eastwood played tough characters who lived in a violent, masculine world.

With The Bridges of Madison County, Eastwood played the first romantic role of his career, and now in True Crime, he further pushes the boundaries of his screen image by playing an alcoholic journalist who is always on the make. It doesn't make any difference how young she might be. In the movie's first scene, he makes a play for a woman in her early 20s. He even boasts about getting run out of New York for having an affair with a publisher's wife (although that's strictly the reporter's idea of a whoppin' good yarn).

Thanks to a run-in with his previous publisher, Steve Everett (Eastwood) fled New York City for The Oakland Tribune. His life is a mess. His wife threatens divorce and the city editor can't stand him. After the reporter originally assigned to cover a state execution dies in an auto accident, Everett is assigned to take her place and interview the death row prisoner. The city editor, Bob Findley (Denis Leary), pleads with him to just write a "human interest sidebar." But Everett isn't good at taking orders.

"You're a real dyed-in-the-wool son-of-a-bitch. Anyone ever told you that?" asks Findley.

"Just close friends and family," says Everett.

He's the kind of guy who smokes in "Smoking Prohibited" areas. But he knows a story when he smells one. And after he starts looking into the impeding execution of convicted murderer Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington), he begins finding discrepancies. His nose tells him Beachum is innocent (even if his wife says "Your hunches are shit!"). True Crime then charts Everett's race to dig up the truth about Beachum before the scheduled midnight execution.

True Crime is a throwback to the movies of the '30s, where newspaper reporters were seen as heroes with a wiseacre remark for every occasion. Think of Pat O'Brien in The Front Page or Clark Gable in It Happened One Night or Fredric March in Nothing Sacred or James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story or Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. We've always suspected that these reporters were hardly-to-be-trusted opportunists; however, this charismatic group of actors made sure their characters seldom failed to absorb our interest. True Crime fleshes out its reporter's character, allowing us to see many unsightly blemishes. For example, when he's supposed to be taking his daughter to the zoo, Everett continues to obsess about the execution. He drops his daughter in a cart and pushes her through the zoo at break-neck speed. He calls it "speed zoo." It's funny until the cart goes sliding sideways and his daughter's head bounces off the pavement. That's the difference: in True Crime, we don't just get the witty repartee and the wild shenanigans. We also get the irresponsible behavior that makes us question the reporter's integrity.

However, at its heart, True Crime is mainly about justifying the reporter's attitude. After all, he's trying to save a man's life. Can we really question his obsession if an innocent man stands to be executed for a crime he didn't commit? It's a tough position to place the audience. But that's part of the irony of the movie: if Everett plays the role of a devoted father and husband, Frank Beachum will die. If he follows his nose for a story and disregards his family's needs, he might just uncover the truth and right a terrible wrong.

This brand of irony is strong on manipulation. It even gives us Michael McKean (of This is Spinal Tap) as a prison chaplain who tries to solicit a confession out of Beachum (and therefore save his soul). McKean is horribly miscast and all of his scenes threaten to turn the movie into a parody. In addition, the screenplay belabors the obvious as the warden asks Beachum "So your wife will be claiming your remains?" Scenes like this one might have become effectively blunt if they weren't at the service of a melodramatic story that becomes increasingly contrived and frantic as the midnight hour approaches. Eventually, the screenwriters even manage to get Everett drunk so that his final desperate drive to the governor's mansion can be filled with trails of sparks and twisted fenders.

In part, True Crime wants to be a fun version of Dead Man Walking. However, the beat-the-clock scenario cheapens the solemnity of the execution drama and reduces the movie's best barbs against the execution process into little more than rank manipulation.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]