TRUE CRIME -- *** -- Clint Eastwood, Isaiah Washington, Lisa Gay Hamiltion, James Woods, Denis Leary; rated R (profanity, violence, sex, nudity); Broadway, Carmike 12, Century, Gateway, Holladay, Midvalley; Redwood, with "Analyze This"; Ritz, Sandy 9.
In "True Crime," Clint Eastwood plays a grizzled, amoral newspaper reporter who has no problem saying he's sorry. Meaning it, however, is an altogether different proposition.
Eastwood's Steve Everett has a lot to apologize for. He's a boozer and has lost jobs because his binges affected his judgment. He's a womanizer not above sleeping with the boss's wife just for the kick of it. He's a bad husband, a pathetic father, a selfish friend and a canny liar. And because he's played by Clint Eastwood, he's just the kind of rascal you grudgingly root for and like.
Everett's 24-hour journey of personal redemption is one of the best things about "True Crime," a taut, sober film about a journalist trying to save a man from Death Row and, in the process, rescue himself from life's gutter.
Eastwood, who also directed the film, contrasts Everett's race with the clock with that of the movie's doomed prisoner, Frank Beachum (the excellent Isaiah Washington), now a born-again Christian resigned to being executed for a murder he says he did not commit. The parallel stories are intertwined in a gripping manner that, up until some glaringly contrived moments late in the film, transcend Hollywood formula.
Everett learns on the morning of the Beachum execution that he has been assigned to write a "human-interest" story on the convicted murderer's last hours. This type of puff piece is anathema to Everett, and he immediately starts digging into the more circumstantial aspects of the case, much to the consternation of his paper's insecure city editor, Bob (Denis Leary). Of course, Bob has reason to be insecure, having just learned that his wife has been sleeping with Everett that very same morning.
Such freelancing, needless to say, only adds to Everett's already tenuous standing at the paper. Everett doesn't care. He stakes his professional reputation on being able to come up with proof -- by the midnight hour -- that will save Beachum from lethal injection.
The screenplay -- written by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff -- has a sharp eye for detail. The newsroom scenes crackle with energy, thanks to Leary and a manic James Woods, who plays the paper's gruff, profane editor.
When the action shifts to the prison, the restrained Washington gives the action a quiet grace and dignity. Not since "Dead Man Walking" has Death Row been captured in such a detached, clini-
cal and heart-rending manner.
Eastwood doesn't escape all the cliches of the beat-the-clock genre. Far-fetched discoveries are made time and time again, and the film's finale includes some tire-squealing heroics that seem at odds with the kind of meticulous character study that Eastwood has been building. Such contrivances are hard to avoid, but "True Crime" would have been an even better movie if the plot mechanics had been more challenging -- both to the audience and the film's characters.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is the way Eastwood uses Everett to own up to his own off-screen indiscretions, going so far as casting former companion Frances Fisher as a district attorney who reads him the riot act in one jolting scene. Their daughter, Francesca Fisher-Eastwood, is also on board, playing (quite naturally, thank you) Everett's long-suffering little girl.
If "True Crime" is Eastwood's mea culpa, it's a pretty convincing one. Naturally, the movie is still Clint being Clint, so there's little doubt about the triumphant power of redemption. Just because Eastwood is playing a journalist doesn't mean he has to be completely objective.