#29 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Taking another contemporary literary source and adapting it to uneven results, Clint Eastwood’s True Crime does some things quite well but fumbles in some of the more important aspects of the story it’s trying to tell. This is the second time I’ve seen this, and I ended up with pretty much the exact same reaction the second time as the first. I got into and fell out of the narrative here and there until the lead up to the ending where I was getting on board until the actual ending where I just kind of rolled my eyes. This is the first film in Eastwood’s directing career that feels like he’s trying to be self-consciously important about a contemporary issue, and the mawkishness of a full half of the film just undermines my ability to take it seriously.
Steve Everett (Eastwood) is a down and out reporter working for a newspaper in Oakland after his downfall from The New York Times. He’s a womanizer and recovering alcoholic who spends his introduction into the film aggressively hitting on a woman about forty years younger than him, fellow reporter Michelle Ziegler (Mary McCormack). When she drives home that night, dying on a dangerous curve, she leaves open the responsibility to cover the human interest angle of an execution scheduled for the next day. The condemned is Frank Beechum (Isaiah Washington) who was accused of shooting a young, pregnant woman in the chest at a convenience store over a matter of ninety-six dollars.
Where this movie really shines is in the intraoffice politics revolving around Everett, his editor Bob (Denis Leary), and the publisher Alan (James Woods). Everett is sleeping with Bob’s wife while trying to recover professionally from a crusade the previous year where he tried to get an accused rapist off only for the rapist to admit to the crime. This causes a lot of friction, especially with Bob, but it stays below the surface most of the time. Woods only has a few scenes as Alan, but he completely dominates every frame he’s in, especially the scene where he tells Everett to stop sleeping with Bob’s wife. It’s one of the funniest things in any Eastwood movie, and it’s entirely owed to Woods.
The other side of the is Frank who faces his final day of life with stoic resolve while people come and go to visit him for official and unofficial reasons. There’s the warden (Bernard Hill), the overzealous priest (Michael McKean), and most particularly his wife Bonnie (LisaGay Hamilton) and daughter Gail (Penny Bae Bridges). All of Frank’s scenes with Bonnie and Gail are played at the highest of emotional levels as people prepare for Frank’s death. There’s really no room for growth or self-discovery, and every scene just plays a lot like the last, obviously tugging at the heartstrings in the most explicit and obvious ways. I mean…what else is a condemned man on his last day supposed to do? He’s not going to be going out to investigate the murder he’s accused of. I don’t think it makes for compelling drama, though.
Another part of the film that I can’t quite buy is Everett’s investigation. Done six years after the crime after a trial and several appeals, he’s suddenly the one to sniff out the inconsistencies in witness testimony enough to not only establish reasonable doubt but affirmatively point out the guy who actually did it? Also, was there ever any tension around the idea that Frank was actually innocent? This is a problem with message movies: they end up having seriously predictable elements that probably shouldn’t be that predictable.
The chase for information on Everett’s part is matched by the dissolution of his family life. Bob calls Everett’s wife Barbara (Diane Venora) and tells her about Everett’s infidelity. That combined with Everett’s inability to commit to time to spend with his daughter Kate (Francesca Eastwood) which leads to him rushing through a zoo visit and accidentally spilling her onto the concrete walkway ends up convincing Barbara that Everett will never change (the dude is ancient, so it was probably a good assumption to begin with). I get what the narrative is doing with this, showing the dedication of the rough, old-school journalist while contrasting his hard work with the system around Frank that failed him. I get it, and Everett’s personal problems end up more compelling than Frank’s sitting around impotently while waiting for a savior to come, however it feels off considering the focus seems to be Frank. Something about how this film is built just seems off.
That being said, I’d recommend this whole film just for James Woods’ scenes alone. They are fantastic, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor play against Eastwood with that level of confidence, snark, and pure joie de vie before. Eastwood almost seems lost in comparison (it’s appropriate for the character moment, but you don’t see that often in Eastwood performances), though there is definitely pinging back and forth that really gives the moments energy.
As a whole, though? The movie’s not really good. The mystery is thin and obvious. The film’s reality around the investigation feels artificial. Frank’s scenes are all mawkish. It’s not an outright failure of a film, there’s too much solid and even entertaining stuff sprinkled throughout, but the whole feels malformed.