The struggles of individuals to rise above their profound weaknesses and those of the society they've created receive absorbingly dramatic treatment in "True Crime." A capital-punishment yarn that is much more concerned with character issues than with moral or legal matters, Clint Eastwood's latest picture boasts tight storytelling, sharp acting and an eye for unexpected, enlivening detail.

The struggles of individuals to rise above their profound weaknesses and those of the society they’ve created receive absorbingly dramatic treatment in “True Crime.” A capital-punishment yarn that is much more concerned with character issues than with moral or legal matters, Clint Eastwood’s latest picture boasts tight storytelling, sharp acting and an eye for unexpected, enlivening detail that spells strong viewer involvement and solid early spring B.O. among adult mainstream audiences.

Confined to a 24-hour period and constructed on parallel tracks to follow the fortunes of two men, a black inmate scheduled for execution at midnight and a white newspaper reporter who becomes convinced at the 11th hour that the prisoner is innocent, solid script by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff is plotted in conventional beat-the-clock suspense fashion. But even more than in past outings such as “Tightrope” and “In the Line of Fire,” Eastwood is concerned with illuminating his character’s flaws and idiosyncrasies, as well as his irresponsibility toward those who count on him most. This concentration on attitudes and personality, as well as a heightened awareness of the tenuousness of life and happiness, give the film a richness and weight that go a long way toward compensating for the late-in-the-game contrivances of the plot mechanics.

While Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington) is being prepared to receive a lethal injection at San Quentin for the murder of a pregnant convenience-store clerk six years earlier, Steve Everett (Eastwood), an aging bad-boy reporter for the Oakland Tribune, is putting some smooth moves on a comely young colleague, Michelle (Mary McCormack), in a Bay Area saloon. When she thinks better of reciprocating Steve’s advances, the tipsy Michelle speeds out into the rainy night and is killed in a car wreck.

Unaware of this and despite a wife and daughter at home, the genial reprobate Steve dallies with the wife (an excellent Laila Robins) of his assignment editor, Bob Findley (Denis Leary), before dropping by the office on his day off. But because of Michelle’s death, what begins as a carefree day for Steve turns into an impossible crunch of professional obligations and personal crises, all of which are overshadowed by his growing feeling that the state may be about to take the life of an innocent man.

Suddenly saddled with Michelle’s job of conducting a final interview with the condemned man, Steve takes a cursory look at the case and finds that Frank was convicted on the basis of some questionable testimony. For his part, Frank is a born-again Christian with a loving wife and daughter who, while continuing to profess his innocence, has stoically faced up to the reality of his predicament.

While Steve frantically attempts in a matter of hours to discredit the received version of the case to prove that his “nose” for a hot story is in working order, the mess he’s made of his life is revealed in wry and, at times, devastating detail. At work, his superior Bob is out to skin him alive for his reckless behavior with his wife and in the office; fortunately, the brashly cynical editor-in-chief (James Woods) likes Steve despite his waywardness.

Things are even worse at home: With a husband who won’t be domesticated, Steve’s wife, Barbara (Diane Venora), has become one big, raw nerve. Cramming a promised zoo date with his daughter (played by Eastwood’s own child) into his impossibly crazed day, Steve basically seals his fate with his family through his carelessness.

Pic’s understated contrasting of the husband-wife-daughter relationships within Steve and Frank’s respective families reps one of its strongest points: Steve, who’s free, talented at his work and has been given great latitude to clean up his act, repeatedly throws it all away through his irresponsibility and selfishness. Frank, by comparison, is doomed, but exhibits unlimited love and care for his family and impressive moral rigor while staring death in the face; the scene of his final leave-taking of his daughter, who is too young to fully comprehend what’s going on, is devastating.

As the day heads toward night, Steve believes that he may have found the opening he needs to stop the execution. Pic’s climax, with its furious police pursuit through rainy streets and official telephones waiting to ring, feels too artificial and “Perils of Pauline”-like after all the credible humanity of what’s come before.

Eastwood takes evident delight in applying fine brush strokes to his portrait of a sympathetic but amoral scoundrel. The casual slipping on of his wedding ring upon departing the boudoir of his boss’s wife, his deliberate flouting of regulations at the office, the hollowness of his promise to change his ways after his wife says she wants to call it quits — these and many other character subtleties make this one of the actor’s most detailed and insightful performances.

Playing the dignified sufferer, Washington mainly must keep himself tightly coiled, but does a fine job with this as well as with his intermittent emotional outbursts. Woods is enjoyably showy as the editor who loves to hear himself talk, Leary wears a permanent evil eye as Steve’s office tormentor, and Venora, so good in Eastwood’s “Bird,” socks over her few scenes as Steve’s exhausted wife. Large cast has been nicely filled down to the smallest roles.

Shot mostly on deliberately ordinary East Bay locations, pic is solid technically.

True Crime

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Zanuck Co./Malpaso production. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck. Executive producer, Tom Rooker. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Andrew Klavan.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Jack N. Green; editor, Joel Cox; music, Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; art director, Jack G. Taylor Jr.; set decorator, Richard Goddard; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Walt Martin; assistant director, Robert Lorenz; casting, Phyllis Huffman. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, March 5, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Steve Everett - Clint Eastwood Frank Beachum - Isaiah Washington Bob Findley - Denis Leary Bonnie Beachum - Lisa Gay Hamilton Alan Mann - James Woods Luther Plunkitt - Bernard Hill Barbara Everett - Diane Venora Reverend Shillerman - Michael McKean Dale Porterhouse - Michael Jeter Michelle Ziegler - Mary McCormack Mrs. Russel - Hattie Winston Gail Beachum - Penny Rae Bridges Kate Everett - Francesca Fisher-Eastwood Reedy - John Finn Patricia Findley - Laila Robins Jane March - Sydney Poitier Pussy Man - Erik King Arnold McCardle - Graham Beckel Cecilia Nussbaum - Frances Fisher Amy Wilson - Marissa Ribisi Bridget Rossiter - Christine Ebersole Henry Lowenstein - Anthony Zerbe
Camera (Technicolor), Jack N. Green; editor, Joel Cox; music, Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; art director, Jack G. Taylor Jr.; set decorator, Richard Goddard; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Walt Martin; assistant director, Robert Lorenz; casting, Phyllis Huffman. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, March 5, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 127 MIN.
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