By Andy Kamenetzky and Daniel Smith-Rowsey
In True Crime, Clint Eastwood plays Steve Everett, a recently recovering alcoholic, a cuckolder and womanizer, and a nearly washed-up reporter working for the Oakland Tribune. Amy, one of Steve’s fellow reporters, after a night drinking with Steve, dies in a car crash, and the next morning Steve is assigned her next story, a “puff piece” about Frank Beechum, who will be executed in San Quentin at midnight. Steve is rediscovering his “nose for news,” which is a problem for his boss and co-worker, not only because he has had recent affairs with each of their wives. Beechum has a wife and a daughter around the same age as Steve’s, and the film clearly contrasts Steve’s terrible family habits with Beechum’s utter (and doomed) devotion to his. With less than an hour until midnight, Steve recovers exculpatory evidence, and races against time to stay the execution.
In terms of box office, True Crime was Eastwood’s least successful film of the 1990s. On the heels of Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County, but before Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, the film represented a detour for the critic’s darling and audience favorite, even though his style didn’t really change. It featured the same spare framings, muted tones, location use, low key lighting, naturalistic acting we’ve come to expect from the prolific filmmaker. Nonetheless, Eastwood playing a pithy truth teller (a journalist) paired with the casting of his real life then-6-year-old daughter in an Oakland setting all adds up to True Crime offering autobiographical elements that are rare in an Eastwood film. (After decades spent cultivating various personas, fans may be surprised to learn that Clint isn’t actually Harry Callahan, William Munny, or orangutan bestie Philo Beddoe.) In that sense, True Crime is a detour up an interesting street – sometimes.
True Crime is occasionally thrilling but largely frustrating, because a much better movie seems to be lurking in the corners. The title itself is a vague mishmash providing no compelling reason to see the thing, unless it infers that the “true crime” is executing guilty people, a liberal paean that the rest of the film doesn’t entirely support. It’s a single-day setup, with Beechum’s ticking death clock supplying the urgency, the get-it-done-by-midnight structure a function of both journalism (in the 90s, anyway) and the criminal justice system on execution day. A recurring problem is how hard it is to accept that Everett can solve a crime dropped in his lap in less than one day after professionals couldn’t solve it over six years. If nothing else, it’s a scathing indictment of both Oakland’s police department and local media.
More notably, Everett’s character fosters a perpetually dismissive and even misogynistic attitude towards the women in his life, creating weird and awkward scenes throughout the movie. The first scene lays the groundwork: Eastwood, nearly 70 in real life and married in screen life, at a bar, hits on (and briefly kisses!) his soon-to-be-dead co-worker Amy, who’s more than 40 years his junior. Even by the age inappropriateness standards we’ve come to expect from Hollywood, it’s seriously creepy. (In Klavan’s novel, Everett is about half Clint’s age; Clint cast himself without updating the particulars.) We later learn Everett has a track record for inappropriate dalliances that have cost him jobs, relationships and credibility. He’s currently engaged in an affair with the wife of his colleague Bob (Denis Leary), and his boss Alan Mann (James Woods at his oiliest) chides him for this, but only because it could interfere with work. Bob’s discovery of the affair leads to a workplace confrontation, where he declares working with Everett “an intolerable environment.” Alan’s response? “Intolerable environment? What are you, some fucking feminist cooze?” (Because why would anybody object to sharing office space with the guy screwing his wife?) As Bob storms off, Everett tells him to “go home and hit your wife, because she likes it.” A cackling Alan riffs, “nice one, babe.” Even before #metoo, it’s hard to imagine this being made the same way in 2017.
This macho attitude isn’t just limited to conversations between Everett and Alan. Everett cheerily jokes with his secretary about sexually harassing her. He watches a homeless man accost women and reacts with amusement. Inside a store, he ogles women without even trying to hide it. Even a male co-worker is jokingly offered oral sex if he’ll fetch Everett a cup of coffee. There’s a weird desire to include as much anti-feminist rhetoric as possible, despite the movie having absolutely nothing to do with women, much less feminism. Perhaps Eastwood or the screenwriters were satirizing political correctness (or its backlash), or maybe they simply found these to be interesting character and story choices. But it makes it confusing for the audience to get a bead on Everett, a misanthrope who’ll ultimately risk life and limb for the justice he claims not to give a shit about. Most films would struggle to find the sweet spot while celebrating righteousness and casual misogyny, and True Crime is no exception, and this couldn’t have helped its box office prospects.
All that emphatically said, True Crime is interesting in a manner that $55 million films rarely are today. James Woods has a terrific early speech about journalistic issues being made up to sell sex and blood, a theme that arguably carries over into the rest of the proceedings. The contrast of (white) Steve treating his family like crap and (black) slated-for-death Frank Beechum treating his family with love, however crudely juxtaposed, remains effective. Somewhat like Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking (1995), the film commits itself to showing little details of the final stop of America’s criminal justice system, including the machinations of the prison warden, its priest, and some guards. The scenes of Frank trying to explain to his daughter that he’ll never see her again are absolutely heart-wrenching without being manipulative in the manner of, say, The Green Mile (1999). Compared to that film, no one’s calling True Crime’s doomed convict a Magical Negro; Frank’s scenes consistently exhibit a painful realism. It’s a mistake to read Klavan or Eastwood as liberal (it’s not a mistake to read Robbins that way), but their story is certainly fascinated with the death penalty’s nuts and bolts, which often makes it fascinating for us.
Also, True Crime shows a side of Oakland that probably no other film with a $50 million+ budget has ever shown. Probably consciously, the film never says or shows San Francisco, re-situating Oakland and its neighbor Richmond (where the murder happened) as just another pair of American minor locales, albeit more racially integrated than most. The film plays fruitfully with race relations; Frank is suspected mostly because he’s black, and Steve’s suspicions are set off when he learns that a white professional walked into a liquor store in a black neighborhood (supposedly) after hearing gunshots. It’s minor Eastwood, but fans of his instincts can find a lot to like here.