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TRUE CRIME

by: James Berardinelli

True Crime has the potential to be a truly memorable film, and, for more than three-quarters of its running time, it is poised to live up to that potential. But then there are the final twenty minutes, which proffer the almost-painful experience of watching compelling drama devolve into mindless action. True Crime's denouement is perplexing and exasperating, because, aside from generating some artificial tension, it contributes nothing to the story as a whole, and, consequently, serves only to cheapen it. (Didn't Robert Altman satirize this very ending in The Player? Think about it.)

True Crime follows 24 hours in the lives of two men whose circumstances are vastly different, but whose destinies become intertwined. Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington) is an innocent man on Death Row in San Quentin. His supposed crime: the murder of a pregnant convenience store clerk. A mere day away from his final meal, Frank is calm and resigned to his fate. Last minute reprieves are unlikely. Frank's wife, Bonnie (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and his young daughter are less stoic. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the death of a colleague at the Oakland Tribune, veteran reporter Steve Everett (Clint Eastwood) is given the assignment of covering Frank's execution. His editor, Bob Findley (Denis Leary), makes it clear that all he's interested in is a "human interests piece," but Frank's investigative nose starts twitching. Something isn't right, and, after only a few hours' digging, he thinks he knows why: Frank has been wrongfully convicted. Of course, the difficulty lies in proving it, and, the more of himself Steve invests in the story, the more apparent it becomes that his personal redemption is fused with Frank's salvation. Therein lies the film's dramatic core, and that wellspring is the source of True Crime's building suspense.

True Crime is not afraid to tackle difficult issues. While it does not attack the subject of capital punishment as directly as Dead Man Walking or even Errol Morris' new documentary, Mr. Death, it presents the frightening scenario of an innocent man awaiting execution. Of all the arguments against the death penalty, for me, this has always been the most persuasive one. The consideration that, no matter how many phases there are in the appeals process, blameless men and women will still die, should be enough to give even the most gung-ho hawk pause.

Eastwood, who is functioning with three hats (director, producer, star), depicts Frank's final day with the assurance and meticulous detail of a seasoned professional. From the guard who sits at a typewriter recording his every activity ("6:04 - Prisoner awakens") to Frank's agonizing final meeting with his family and the long walk to the Lethal Injection Chamber, Eastwood doesn't miss a beat. Not having ever been close to these circumstances, I can't say how accurately the situation is presented, but it seems real enough. Ditto for all the scenes at the Tribune. Another nice touch is that the warden (Bernard Hill) defies the classic Hollywood stereotype. This man cares about his prisoner, and he displays little relish when it comes to carrying out his job.

As Steve Everett, Eastwood is playing one of his least-likable characters in years. An ex-drunk, arrogant womanizer, and absentee father, Steve leaves the wreckage of lives and marriages (including his own) in his wake. Gradually, we uncover the reason for his behavior - he's trying to atone for a past debacle that should have gotten him fired. Steve desperately wants - no, needs - Frank to be innocent, because, by saving the inmate, the reporter sees a chance to free himself. He is therefore motivated not by altruism but by self-interest.

Frank and Steve meet face-to-face only once during the course of the film, but it's an electrifying moment. Indeed, the best scenes in True Crime are those that f

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