True Crime (1999)

D: Clint Eastwood
S: Clint Eastwood, Isaiah Washington

Thought-provoking, but ultimately disappointing drama from Clint Eastwood following the underrated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the way of these things, the man himself has stepped into the cast list to give the production a higher profile having remained director-only last time, and, as in Absolute Power, this proves to be a liability. He plays a washed-up reporter with a troubled marriage who is assigned the task of interviewing Isaiah Washington, a man with a criminal past awaiting execution for a murder he claims he did not commit. Juggling personal and professional commitments, he begins probing into the facts in the case while his relationship with his wife and daughter seems about to come apart. In contrast Washington fills out his last hours solidifying the bonds with his family which give him the strength to accept his destiny in spite of injustice.

There is excellent material in here, and the film addresses a range of ethical and personal issues arising from what could so easily have been a ten-a-penny Hollywood programmer plot (from Andrew Klavan's novel). Among the complications are Eastwood's borderline anti-social character, who is a far cry from the traditional hero, and who does not really find the kind of redemption such films often offer their leads. His womanising, rudeness, and casual brutality with other people's feelings are 'justified' by his pursuit of the truth, but when even this is thrown into relief by some pertinent questions about his success rate and his ultimate motivation for doing it, he becomes a dark anti-hero not a million miles from William Muny in Unforgiven.

The film is also interesting in its treatment of the death penalty debate. It is careful to present the prison authorities and the legal system in a sympathetic light, leaving the hateful hysteria to crowds of pro-penalty demonstrators gathered outside the prison who are usually seen only on television reports in the background and never become the centre of the picture. In this way the ethical dilemmas subtly underline the plot, but never come to the surface in a way which would skew the focus onto political posturing. There is also a fascinating study of journalistic ethics, with James Woods and Dennis Leary scoring bullseyes as the editor and assistant editor who must deal with Eastwood's eccentricities on more than one level, and a nice study of the questionable methods the reporter employs in getting his story.

There is much to admire here, and in terms of contemporary American drama, the film has the virtue of being both interesting and mature in its handling of difficult themes. Yet there are structural problems which detract from this, and it is increasingly difficult to accept Eastwood himself in these roles even though he is quite earnest. It begins badly, taking far too long to establish the basic questions which must be answered. Establishing scenes introduce us to Eastwood's character, but tell us nothing we don't learn later anyway. Meanwhile the minutes tick by, the strands of plot are awkwardly set up with a series of parallel storylines and by the time the inciting incident arrives, many people will have lost interest. The ending compounds the problem by resorting to formula last-minute car chasing and a surprisingly unsatisfying resolution. Some sub-plots also go awry, especially the baffling issues raised by prison parson Michael McKean which are contrasted with Washington's faith and the fleeting presence of Anthony Zerbe upon which much too important a narrative moment hinges at the climax. (Eastwood also obviously derives a certain pleasure from casting Frances Fisher in a small but pivotal role, as well as featuring their daughter, Francesca, as his on-screen child.)

The film's biggest problem is Eastwood himself. His star persona and screen presence are still formidable weapons, and, as seen in Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire, when they are used well they can provide both depth and entertainment. In True Crime, he tries hard to craft a complex character who seems a bit younger than the actor can play. He struggles with the assignment, his mind clearly in too many places at once. The character is nicely understated, which Eastwood has always preferred anyway, but he is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic enough to be convincing. He also remains Clint Eastwood in a way which is distracting, and though he has some good moments, the actor leaves the film with a central flaw which the director is unable to overcome. Washington is good in the secondary lead, and there are some heart wrenching scenes with Lisa Gay Hamilton as his wife, but when faced with a star of Eastwood's magnitude, Washington's arguably superior acting becomes moot. Casting a less well-known face against him might have resulted in more balanced drama. As is, the star power works against the film in a way which Eastwood can't but be disappointed with.

Note: The Region 2 DVD features some additional documentary material featuring a true life case notably similar to the one used in the novel but which, a title card informs us, was not the basis for the story.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.