True Crime

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Clint Eastwood

REVIEWED: 03-29-99

In Clint Eastwood's otherwise stifling 1997 "thriller" Absolute Power, there's one scene that comes off like a little miracle. Eastwood's master thief and Ed Harris' exhausted cop chat about old age at the snack bar of a museum, and both the characters and the story open up before our eyes, only to snap shut again immediately, weighed down by the heavy-handed moralizing and clumsy political conspiracies. Meanwhile, we pine for that moment of grace, thinking, "Why can't the entire movie be little scenes like this?"

True Crime, Eastwood's latest directorial effort, is almost exactly what we were pining for. Eastwood stars as a recovering alcoholic reporter on the crime beat of an Oakland, Calif., newspaper. Assigned to write a "human interest" piece about the last day in the life of condemned murderer Isaiah Washington, Eastwood instead decides to investigate whether Washington is actually guilty.

This is far from an original premise--it's been used in Call Northside 777 and the movie-within-a-movie of The Player, among others--and subplots about Eastwood's unreliability and unfaithfulness are hardly crisp. Fortunately, the film doesn't present these clichs as though they were revelations. Instead, Eastwood moves at a relaxed, confident pace, letting the potboiler heat up on its own while he leisurely settles into each scene.

For the first hour, he casually cuts from the mundane official details surrounding a convict's execution to the ways a reporter procrastinates by pecking around the edges of the story. Eastwood's character even pauses to take his daughter to the zoo, although his general impatience with domestic matters causes him to rush through the park on what he calls "speed zoo." And yes, there's a race against time in the final hour, as Eastwood tries to find a crucial witness before it's too late. But the big climax is no more important to the director than the heartbreakingly prosaic hours that Washington spends with his family (including a daughter who's distraught over the loss of a green crayon).

Eastwood deserves only partial credit for True Crime's emphasis on small, human-scaled scenes. A team of screenwriters including Paul Brickman (Risky Business) and Larry Gross (48 Hours) hammered out the script, and Eastwood is notorious for filming scripts as swiftly and precisely as possible. Of course, he also works with the writers to get a script he likes, and one can imagine lively conferences for True Crime, as one person argued for Dead Man Walking-style realism and another pushed for rapid-fire, Ben Hecht-inspired newsroom dialogue.

Eastwood allows room for a little bit of both, showing both the awkward nobility of the prison guards and wardens, as well as the vulgar repartee between himself and his editors (James Woods and Denis Leary). Somehow, this collision of styles never looks hideous, mainly because Eastwood doesn't put his bricks together to make some grand statement--rather, he simply likes how they feel in his hand. Ultimately, True Crime becomes what it's about: a celebration of little moments.

--Noel Murray

Full Length Reviews
True Crime

Capsule Reviews
True Crime

Other Films by Clint Eastwood
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
The Bridges of Madison County

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