March 21, 1999 -- "True Crime" is one of those rare movies which portrays a newspaper reporter as a hero. It would be tough for me, a reporter, not to like that. It also takes a serious and unflattering look at the death penalty, a very unpopular thing to do. And who would attempt such a project? Clint Eastwood, of course.
Clint Eastwood stars (and directs the film) as Steve Everett, an alcoholic, womanizer who is almost washed up as a reporter. He has one thing going for him, when he's not drinking, that is; he has a nose for news, a kind of journalistic intuition.
Everett's nose tells him something stinks in the case of Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington of "Out of Sight" and "Bullworth") who is on death row. Everett inherits the story on the day of Beachum's execution because of the accidental death of a reporter who was covering the case. He gets to work, reviewing documents, interviewing witnesses and stirring up trouble.
As if it isn't hard enough crack a 6-year-old murder case in 15 hours, Everett also has to fight with his bosses and wife over his extra-marital affair with his boss' wife. In the real world, most of the day would have been taken up with commuting time in the congested San Francisco Bay area. There's no way Everett would have made the deadline if he had to drive everywhere, as he does in this movie. The sudden change of mind of one witness also did not quite ring true.
Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Everett and his fire-breathing boss, Alan Mann (James Woods). Woods has a great time chewing up the scenery and is a good match for Eastwood's intensity. Washington is just right as the death row inmate and the rest of the supporting cast is very effective.
While this is a formula movie and the ending is predictable, it is fun getting there. It isn't really a family film, however, since there is a lot of obscene language and some sexually-suggestive scenes. Eastwood brings a gritty realism to his character. The idea of an innocent man on death row isn't as far fetched as it might seem either. By some estimates about 10 percent of the people on death row in the U.S. are, in fact, not guilty. A good number of them, like the Beachum character, are poor and black, convicted by white juries. This film rates a B.
One of the links from the movie's web page (the link is below) is some material from the ACLU on the death penalty, including this: "Several factors help explain why the judicial system cannot guarantee that justice will never miscarry: overzealous prosecution, mistaken or perjured testimony, faulty police work, coerced confessions, the defendant's previous criminal record, inept defense counsel, seemingly conclusive circumstantial evidence, and community pressure for a conviction, among others. And when the system does go wrong, it is volunteers outside the criminal justice system – journalists, for example – who rectify the errors, not the police or prosecutors. To retain the death penalty in the face of the demonstrable failures of the system is unacceptable, especially since there are no strong overriding reasons to favor the death penalty."
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