A ridiculous deus-ex-machina “wrong man” story, Clint Eastwood’s True Crime begins as though it might be Escape From Alcatraz II, a sequel to the star’s 1979 vehicle. But Eastwood is here only a metaphoric prisoner. On one hand, the venerable director-star imagines himself back in his hometown of Oakland as an aging scamp saddled with a demanding wife (Diane Venora) and an annoying three-year-old (unfortunately played by Eastwood’s own daughter). On the other, he is pondering that fate from which there is no escape.
Casting himself as a much-traveled crime reporter at The Oakland Tribune, Eastwood plays a compulsively antiauthoritarian type who smokes in the newsroom, drinks and drives (a moldering heap), sasses his superiors, and defiantly hits on his female coworkers. Thanks to one rejected pass (combined with an act of God), this ink-stained, one-man rat pack inherits the assignment to cover the last hours of a convicted killer (played by Isaiah Washington with preternatural dignity), who shot a pregnant convenience store counter girl for $96— at least according to circumstantial evidence and two white witnesses— and is scheduled for lethal injection at midnight.
The movie makes elaborate use of match-cut parallel action. The near-slapstick chaos of Eastwood’s personal and professional escapades is juxtaposed with solemn death-row overhead shots of the presumably innocent Washington’s last day on earth, establishing a certain stringent urgency that’s rendered all the more overdetermined by the carefully doubled wife-and-small-daughter setups shared by the reporter and the condemned man.
Hired for what looks like a day and a half of shooting, James Woods idles in and out of the movie as a well-oiled riff machine, portraying a cynical editor-in-chief who plays mind games with his underlings while supplying the requisite snickering bromides: All “people want to read about [are] sex organs and blood.” Indeed, the movie’s mixture of extravagantly hard-boiled professionalism, lurid issue-mongering, and clock-ticking narrative structure sometimes suggests a throwback to the Warner Bros. crime flicks of the early 1930s. For perhaps 70 minutes (which was as long as those old Warners movies ran), True Crime has more formal integrity than any movie Eastwood has directed since his 1990 masterpiece White Hunter, Black Heart. There are even subliminal traces of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line in the use of flashbacks and playfully frozen moments, not to mention in the crime’s ultimate solution. Then, around the time it becomes oppressively apparent that saving Washington’s life will be the Clint character’s redemption, True Crime falls apart.
Despite three credited writers, none of whom apparently worked together, the final script contains several dreadfully written breakup scenes between Eastwood and Venora and, unless a Ouija-board flashback to an interview with a dead man has been left on the cutting room floor, one flagrant inconsistency. Meanwhile, the movie’s unavoidable anticapital punishment message and self-congratulatory racial correctness allow for (or perhaps demand) placating the action audience with a constant discharge of sour antifeminism.
A respite from the weird and wrenching farewells (“Why can’t you just kill all the people and come home?” Washington’s little girl wants to know), the set-piece death-house interview is a small classic of Front Page attitudinizing. Doodling in shorthand while Washington spouts Bible clichés, Eastwood suddenly hisses that, although he personally doesn’t “give a rat’s ass for Jesus Christ,” his nose for news tells him that something stinks. Or, to put it another way, there’s
only room for one deity in this particular universe.
Now at the Rooster Cogburn stage of his career, Eastwood has gazed into the abyss and backed off. Whatever his character’s lovingly etched flaws, suffice to say that the filmmaker ultimately affirms that old Hollywood religion. Death be not proud. There is no problem so great that it cannot be resolved by movie-star charisma.