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'True Crime'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1999

  Movie Critic

'True Crime'
Clint Eastwood plays a craggy reporter to Isaiah Washington's condemned prisoner. (Warner Bros.)

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood;
Isaiah Washington;
Denis Leary;
Lisa Gay Hamilton;
James Woods;
Mary McCormack;
Sydney Poitier
Running Time:
2 hours, 7 minutes
Profanity and sexual suggestiveness
A friend says you could plant corn on Clint Eastwood's face. And you could; it's as furrowed as a thousand acres of Iowa bottomland. But that crop would be nothing compared with the corn Our Man Clint plants in "True Crime," an anti-capital-punishment polemic that won't change a single mind anywhere on Earth but will entertain well enough everywhere on Earth.

It's an old trick, traceable back to the wonderful (and better) "Northside 777," where Jimmy Stewart's reportorial instincts ultimately liberate an unjustly imprisoned man. As Eastwood's film has it, the victim is an impossibly noble African American (Isaiah Washington), a cross between Paul Robeson and John Henry, who is being hastened toward death for the murder of a pregnant white college student, who was a convenience store clerk when she was shot during a robbery. It seems open and shut, but Eastwood's Steve (Ev) Everett, of the Oakland Tribune metro staff, has a nose for news almost as big as the one he has for dames.

The conceit is hopelessly, amiably sentimental: Salty old dog ex-drunk reporter sniffing at the state's case, trying to find the inconsistencies on the day of the execution with the clock ticking inexorably toward 12:01 a.m. (There are so many close-ups of clock faces, maybe one will get a Best Supporting Actor.) Ev asks questions, sleeps with a variety of available women including the city editor's wife but excepting his own, argues with management, takes his daughter to the zoo, interviews the condemned man, tracks down witnesses, all against the approach of midnight plus one. In another half of the story, Frank Beachum (Washington) shares a little quality time with his wife and child, tries to retain his dignity while the bureaucracy of death functions around him, and the seconds while away.

Perhaps Eastwood has mellowed; whatever, one significant attribute of the world he creates is that it's mellowed, too. Though racially incendiary, the movie never turns explosive with rage and it allows all its characters a common decency. Even the prison, the guards and the warden are portrayed as men just trying to get through the day as pleasantly as possible, and not without their own inner decency.

But the best thing about the film is Eastwood the director's generosity with the other actors in the film. Unlike a few recent star-directed or star-produced vehicles, you feel that Eastwood's private agenda isn't his own self-aggrandizement; he knows that close-ups will send children screaming to the lobby and cause strong men to faint. It's to advance the careers of everybody who works with him, including his ex-girlfriend Frances Fisher, who has a nifty talent-strutting scene as a tough prosecuting attorney.

But mainly it's James Woods and Denis Leary who profit. Ev has cuckolded both of them, but where the uptight city editor Leary takes it seriously, old pro Woods (the managing editor) sees the comedy in it (and also the comedy in Eastwood's one vanity, his insistence that at the age of a great-grandfather he's attractive to women in their early twenties). Eastwood the director orders Eastwood the actor to disappear to nothingness and let Woods and Leary work, and each has vivid, comic moments rich with the kind of newsroom repartee that I have never heard in 28 years in real newsrooms but seems to be the staple of most movies set there (that's more corn for the harvest).

The 24-hour time frame is one of those gimmicks that, despite being older than the Jurassic (when Eastwood was born), always seems to work, and it does here as Ev gets closer and closer to the truth. What he uncovers isn't a grand conspiracy but a commonplace case of sloppiness as an overburdened justice system grinds onward without enough attention to details.

The plot works because in the end it's simple and there's palpable proof of the mistaken judgment; it doesn't demand an elaborate, abstract explanation that needs to be parsed twice for comprehension. It's quick and snappy and it's over.

As I say, I don't think "True Crime" will change any minds about capital punishment, and it certainly isn't as tough and provocative as Tim Robbins's "Dead Man Walking," but it manages to entertain in its amiable way as it progresses.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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