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.