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True Crime

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Isaiah Washington, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Diane Venora, James Woods, Denis Leary

(Warner Bros.; 1999)

Old Man, Take a Look at My Life

Steve Everett is an old-school newspaper reporter, the kind who has improbable hunches that turn out to be right, who gives investigative reporters a good name, who’s relegated to fiction these days. He’s also more complicated than that, a self-styled macho boozer and womanizer, but recently slipped into another state, feeling confused and a little pathetic. As played by the increasingly squinty and flinty Clint Eastwood, Ev is most often surly and distracted, on the wagon but still hanging out at bars, drinking Virgin Marys and putting tiresome moves on pretty much younger colleagues (for instance, Mary McCormack, who also played Howard Stern’s wife Allison in Private Parts: ewww). Ev is plainly too old to be doing any of this, but he persists, waiting for that Big Story that’s going to redeem all prior bad acts.


Though he’d probably say otherwise, Ev isn’t exactly a realist. And he isn’t nearly so ingenious or threatening as he thinks. Once a hot-shot at the New York Times, now Ev is banished to the Oakland Tribune (a friend observes that he’s stuck in “Bumfuck, California’‘). Despite recent misjudgments and missed deadlines, Ev is kept on by an editor friend who remembers his better days, Alan Mann (James Woods). Still, there’s no mistaking Ev’s downhill slide. On and off the clock, he’s a big old self-destructive meanie, smoking in non-smoking areas, driving a clanky hulk of a car, and casually fucking the wife of his immediate boss, assignment editor Bob Findley (Denis Leary, playing well below his usual speed limit).


As if all this set up isn’t enough, the movie further primes Ev for salvation by making him a sympathetic and cantankerous rebel by way of conspicuous shortcuts, such as making everyone else short-sighted and cardboard-drab. Alan supports him but can’t seem to put two sentences together without referring to illicit pussy. Bob affects a vague righteousness but he manifests it by acting like the smoking police. Even Ev’s nominally likeable and long-suffering wife, Barbara (Diane Venora), seems to have nothing better to do with her time than wait around for him to show up to take their young adorable daughter to the zoo. She cries and frets and gives him a hard time when he’s in the middle of a hot story.


This story, by the way, is ungracefully designed to give Ev a last chance, one that’s heavy-handedly metaphorical. He’s assigned a “human interest sidebar” interview with a San Quentin death row inmate, Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington). Instantly — and ridiculously — Ev sees something in the case that six years of investigation and legal appeals have failed to reveal (evidence of the real culprit, a witness who couldn’t have seen what he says he saw). There are numerous tearful and commitment-affirming scenes during Frank’s last day, with his lovely wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and daughter (Penny Bae Bridges), to contrast with Ev’s lack of emotional involvement when he’s with his family.


While such contrivance may be the standard route to movie redemption, it’s still irritating and preposterous: there’s actually a moment when Ev is searching for a clue and oops, it falls from a box to the floor, a notebook opened to exactly the page he’s seeking. Such shenanigans are annoying precisely because they’re unnecessary. It’s not as if Eastwood usually goes in for tight story lines (certainly, In the Line of Fire and Absolute Power depended on colossal plot holes and ineptitude on the villains’ parts). But by stacking the deck like this, the script — based on Andrew Klavan’s novel and patched together by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, and Stephen Schiff — sells Eastwood’s infamous persona short.


For all his last-gunfighter bravado, he’s always been most compelling when playing men who are seriously confused and weak, morally ambiguous, even a little psychotic. His most memorable characters — Dirty Harry, the Man with No Name, Tightrope‘s Wes Block, and Unforgiven‘s William Munny — are burdened with squalid histories and severe grudges. Their endings, no matter how cathartic or superficially happy (at least in the explosive, do-ya-feel-lucky-punk kind of way), come at a painful, usually ugly, emotional and social cost. (The politics, of course, remain the big cypher, but whether Dirty Harry’s extreme right or left, the more important point would seem to be that he’s pathologically masculine, displaying all the anxieties and obsessions of your typical serial killer.)


Ev is a scarred and ugly character, certainly more despicable than the Old Western sociopath Munny. He’s looking hard for redemption, that’s clear (in a drunken state some years before, he made a fatal error concerning a killer he supported in print, which makes his current interest in Frank’s case immediately suspect to anyone who knows him). But Ev gets off the moral hook in a ridiculously contrived series of events that allows him to solve the years-old case in a matter of hours. Yep, he’s an ace.


There is a cost for Ev in this movie, concerning his wife and daughter, but it takes place off screen, so the audience needn’t suffer it. Instead, you get to see him do the right thing, beat the death-penalty system by exposing its most ludicrous oversights (which, it must be said, do exist). There’s no critique of this same system’s classism and racism, or its emotional or spiritual consequences (though there is an almost-comic rascally reverend, played by Michael McKean, who mostly serves to indict institutional media hounds). Rather, the film goes for an easy resolution and flimsy tension-making techniques (ticking clocks, sweaty brows, pesky traffic jams). And in the end, Ev gets to be very nice and very right, exactly what is least interesting about him.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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