MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Clint Eastwood (Steve Everett), Isaiah Washington (Frank Beachum), Denis Leary (Bob Findley), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Bonnie Beachum), James Woods (Alan Mann), Diane Venora (Barbara Everett), Penny Bae Bridges (Gail Beachum)
Call Bob Dole because it looks like he's out of a job. Yep, no more need for him to appear on TV to discuss the virtues of modern medicine and its ability to improve the sexual lives of aging men because Clint Eastwood's new film, "True Crime," can double as a Viagra infomercial.
Although Eastwood is 69 and looks about 10 years older, his investigative reporter character has recently lost his job for getting caught with his editor's underage daughter ("She looked 18"), he has no problem hitting on a 23-year-old co-worker, and he's sleeping with his editor's wife--all this, and he's married to a woman who looks to be in her 30s, and he has a four-year-old daughter. In fact, Eastwood's overly pronounced sexual proclivities throughout the duration of "True Crime" are so silly and distracting (and, in some instances, just plain awkward) that they drain the already lifeless thriller of any blood it might have had. Eastwood forgoes that standard Warren Beatty or Harrison Ford route of being with on-screen women half his age--he divides by three.
Ostensibly, "True Crime" is about Steve Everett (Eastwood), a flawed, aging reporter at the "Oakland Tribune" who turns a routine human interest story upside-down when he begins to suspect that his subject, a condemned man named Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington) is actually innocent. The trick is that Frank is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 12:01 that night, and Everett doesn't even start working on the story until after noon that day. Therefore, he has less that 12 hours to prove the man's innocence.
Done right, "True Crime" could have been a compelling investigative mystery with some interesting thematic insights into the American justice system in general and capital punishment in particular. Instead, the script by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, and Stephen Schiff (based on a novel by Andrew Klavan) is flabby and unfocused. The mystery element is tepid at best, and there are numerous distracting sideplots that have little or no thematic or narrative relevance to the main story.
For instance, Michael McKean shows up several times in the film as an obnoxious chaplain who hangs around the prison, basically tormenting Frank Beachum. Why? Is he intended as some bizarre form of comic relief, or he is just a generalized attack on the Catholic Church? After all, the film makes it clear that Frank is a born-again Christian, so did the filmmakers feel some need to level the playing field by denigrating a member of the church by inserting a lousy, hypocritical priest whose sole purpose in the plot is his lying to the press that Frank confesses to the crime?
The most extensive and ill-formed sideplots involve Everett's sagging home life and his inability to remain faithful to his wife. The scenes between Everett and his wife, Barbara (Diane Venora), are among the most boring and tedious in the film because there is no true sense that these people are man and wife. Eastwood's real-life daughter plays his four-year-old daughter in the film, and even there Eastwood is barely able to make it register that they are related (the fact that he looks more like her grandfather than her father doesn't help). Eastwood fulfills all the other cliched aspects of the grizzled news reporter--he's an ex-alcoholic, he drives a beat-up clunker of a car, he smokes a pack of cigarettes a minute, he has a cluttered desk, and he refers to his "nose" as his best feature--so why didn't they just dump the whole energy-draining family sideplot that creates no real drama, and just make him a loner?
Connected to this aspect of the story is Everett's on-going feud with the paper's city desk editor, a tightwad named Bob Findley (Denis Leary). It is Bob's wife with whom Everett is having an affair, and when Bob finds out, he does little or nothing except give Everett evil looks from across the newsroom and finally complain in a sniveling manner to the paper's chief editor, who is played with relish by James Woods as a no-nonsense guy's guy who can trade vulgar insults just as readily as he can run a major newspaper.
Bob--weak, sexually impotent, straight-laced, and goofy--is obviously set up as the polar opposite of Everett--strong, virile, confident, and unorthodox--to make Everett look good. Part of the film wants us to see Everett as another of Eastwood's great flawed heroes who overcome their human weaknesses to perform some greater deed. But, at the same time, the movie is so intensely laudatory of Everett's flaws that they don't come off as flaws to be overcome, but rather personality quirks to be lived with and accepted. There is no real character development from beginning to end--Everett is static and unchanging in his ways, which means he's a selfish jerk at the beginning and a selfish jerk at the end. And, just to make sure we remember how much he likes young women, one of the movie's last scenes involves him hitting on a young 20ish cashier at a toy store.
What is most unfortunate about "True Crime" is that the scenes with Isaiah Washington as the condemned man are uniformly excellent. Washington turns in a great, nuanced performance as a spiritual man who knows he will die for something he didn't do, but refuses to give up his human dignity, even in the face of the worst injustice. Eastwood directed the scenes with Frank, his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton), and his young daughter with a touching and bittersweet hand, and rarely does he hit a false note. It's just too bad these scenes had to be surrounded on all sides by such a lousy movie.
Copyright © 1999 James Kendrick