True Crime

Director(s): Clint Eastwood

Writer(s): Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Mary McCormack, Lucy Liu, Michael Jeter, Bernard Hill, Frances Fisher, Penny Bae Bridges, James Woods, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Denis Leary, Isaiah Washington and Diane Venora

Reviewed by: Brian Panhuyzen on

Release Date(s)

Mar 19, 1999 - Wide

The acting in Clint Eastwood’s latest film True Crime is very good. Eastwood himself delivers a lead character who, although clich├ęd, holds a certain fascination for the viewer. Eastwood is reporter Steve Everett, a chain-smoking, womanizing alcoholic who also happens to be a damn fine reporter. Or so we are told by his boss at the Oakland Tribune, Alan Mann (JAMES WOODS). Frank Beachum (ISAIAH WASHINGTON) is on death row in San Quentin prison when the death of a Tribune reporter leaves Everett to interview Beachum for the newspaper’s “human interest” angle on the event. Everett immediately senses that the case against Beachum is not altogether just, and, with only hours before the fatal injection, sets out to find out where a rigorous judicial process went wrong.

Despite good acting and competent direction, True Crime fails to be believable, enjoyable, and, perhaps worst of all, convincing as an argument against capital punishment. True Crime crashes because of a poor script from writers Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, and Stephen Schiff.

Every story relies on devices — objects, events, and actions — to get told, and it is the duty of the writer to place those devices before the audience in such a way that the landscape appears smooth and natural. In True Crime, however, the devices stand out like skyscrapers and Ferris wheels. Every time Everett switches on a radio or turns to a television, information relevant to his story is pouring out at him. The scene in which Everett’s predecessor on the story is eliminated is photographed with hamfisted foreshadowing (the accident’s location left me expecting strains of Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve to come blaring through the sound system), and there is only a token reaction to her death. In a particularly awkward scene, a crucial piece of information is found on a note lying on the floor. And, it takes the overzealous actions of a tricky priest (sleazily portrayed by Michael McKean) to provide a news report (yes, another news report) to pull Everett (temporarily) off both the trail and the wagon.

Especially annoying is the fact that the audience is never privy to the source of Everett’s hunch. What he does cite as evidence of poor judicial procedure (how could the accountant have seen over the potato chips?) is so tenuous we are left doubting his reputation and his sanity. Yet we are dragged along from scene to scene hoping for some startling revelation that will restore our faith in him. Instead we watch him smoke cigarette after cigarette, left to conclude that something must be going on behind that furrowed brow or we’d be in our cars discussing the stupid movie while driving home by now.

Regrettably I cannot reveal the most annoying of these monumental plot devices because that would disclose the film’s conclusion, which, although entirely predictable in technique and outcome, may still surprise Neanderthals who have recently thawed from Arctic ice and not yet experienced a Hollywood film. Sorry if that’s giving away too much. What is also annoying about the film’s ending is that its ultimate outcome is delayed despite the fact that information is provided to us earlier (yep, in one of those radio broadcasts!) that explains the relevant procedure. We know it didn’t do what it was supposed to do and yet are still held in suspension before the results are revealed.

The true crime in True Crime is, naturally, capital punishment. The film is effective at showing some of the hypocrisy inherent in the system (it opens showing the prison’s obsession with the condemned man’s health), but in the final analysis True Crime appears to indict capital punishment only when it is served to the innocent, a position which I’m sure is held by the majority of its proponents. Capital punishment isn’t wrong only because innocent people get convicted. (The website at www.truecrimethemovie.com (not www.truecrime.com, which appears to be promoting hair products), contains some excellent anti-capital punishment links.) A visit to the web site’s links provides a much more effective dose of anti-capital punishment information and takes a lot less than the two hours you’ll waste seeing True Crime.

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of The Death of the Moon, a collection of short stories published by Cormorant Books.