Clint Eastwood is playing a good guy in his new movie, True Crime, but he looks leaner and hungrier than ever. His voice has a midnight-caller raspiness, and his smile is a sneer. No matter what the role, there’s always something a bit deranged and wolfish about Eastwood. Even as Mr. Sensitive in The Bridges of Madison County, he had that unhinged gleam in the eye, especially near the end, when he was standing out in the rain, jilted. He seemed close to Dirty Harry meltdown in that moment, and it made me wish he’d played the whole thing as Harry Callahan gone undercover. (It would have been more fun to watch.) Eastwood is unquestionably a movie star, but he doesn’t have much range as an actor, and whenever he ventures into the drippier realms of feeling, as in True Crime, his hard-bittenness intrudes. Decency doesn’t animate him; snarling does.
He’s playing Steve Everett here, a recovering alcoholic hacking out stories on the metro beat for the Oakland Tribune. Since the role is almost entirely in Eastwood’s good-guy zone, he gets to indulge his penchant for bluesy blahness. He spends lots of time in dank places, feeling down on his luck. But not too down. Steve’s libido is still in mint condition. Fired from the New York Times, where he screwed around with the publisher’s daughter, he’s pulling a similar stunt in Oakland with his assignment editor’s wife. Besides this, he’s married; his own wife (Diane Venora) might as well have long-suffering stamped on her forehead. Despite the hurt he causes others, we’re supposed to see Steve as a superannuated scamp; in the Tribune office, the female staff takes turns giving him the eye. There’s a pasha quality to all this googliness – it’s a bit like Dean Martin on his old TV show being vamped by every babe in sight. Except Eastwood isn’t exactly playing it for laughs; it’s more like self-congratulation. For Eastwood, being autumnal means showing off your foliage.
The film is engineered to be about Steve’s redemption. When a comely reporter – whom he, natch, nuzzled – is killed in a car accident, he inherits her assignment: a human-interest piece on convicted murderer Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington), who is less than a day away from death by lethal injection. Steve plods dutifully through the paces, but his nose for news leads him to conclude Frank is innocent. How to prove it in time?
Eastwood, who also directed, from a script credited to Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, and Stephen Schiff, doesn’t lock in the suspense until close to the zero hour. Then he goes in for the kind of creaky crosscutting we haven’t seen since The Perils of Pauline. There’s something antediluvian about True Crime; it resurrects ploys and crotchets you never thought you’d see again. Eastwood wants to be a classic. His entire approach to film is no-nonsense. But sometimes there’s a lot of nonsense in his no-nonsense. In True Crime, Eastwood shifts tones, and you’re never quite sure why. In one sequence near the end, he cuts back and forth between Frank in the death chamber and Steve careering goofily in his car en route to the governor’s mansion; all that’s missing to make the scene complete is the orangutan Eastwood once co-starred with. In a more ambitious movie, these kinds of mood flip-flops might signify something, but here it just looks like Eastwood couldn’t resist going for the easy yuks.
Maybe this explains why the newsroom atmosphere in this film seems so phony. As the editor of the Tribune, James Woods carries on like a cackling banshee; he’s about as believable as Perry White in the old Superman TV series. Don’t the people who make newspaper movies bother to check out newsrooms anymore? The equally specious Message in a Bottle also featured a newsroom that looked as counterfeit as a Potemkin village.
In the great era of newspaper films – the thirties and early forties – the screenwriters often came out of journalism, and you could tell. Films as diverse as His Girl Friday and Citizen Kane had the zing and velocity of the real thing; the office lingo clicked. I spent almost twenty years working on several newspapers, and I never encountered anything like the burlesqued bonhomie on display in True Crime. It’s a raffish actor’s dumbo notion of what a newsroom should be.
All this clunky newspaper stuff wouldn’t seem so bizarre if elsewhere Eastwood wasn’t trying to score heavy-duty points. Steve, for example, is showcased as an old-fashioned anti-hero – in other words, a softie. He tells Frank that he just wants a good story; that he doesn’t care about right and wrong, which, of course, tips us off that he cares about right and wrong. The film puts Steve and Frank on parallel tracks: Both have doting daughters; both have had to live down their past; both are looking for salvation. Is there any doubt these glory guys will pull into the station at the same time? Since Steve’s redemption is essentially a foregone conclusion, his ascension has the air of a coronation about it. And since Frank is black and all his accusers were white, there’s even a race angle: Steve, by implication, becomes the liberal righter of historic wrongs. I guess we should be grateful. In political terms, True Crime is a far cry from Dirty Harry – it actually stands up for due process of law. In Hollywood, I believe this is known as mellowing.