Clint Eastwood is more than a preeminent figure in American movies. At this point, he virtually is American movies. After Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, no other actor has so fully embodied the masculine ideal propounded by Hollywood, that of the rugged individual living by his own perhaps amoral code, untamable by womanly domesticity or flabby-spirited society. But Eastwood has always known consciously what Bogart understood only instinctively and Wayne probably didn't understand at all -- the loner/hero myth is an unstable fiction, at best a self-delusion, at worst a hypocritical mask for stupidity and violence. Which has never meant that either Eastwood or his audience could resist its romantic appeal, of course, only that they saw the poison as poison and drank it anyway.
Eastwood's unique ability to undermine and embrace myth at the same time reached its fullest fruition in his multiple Oscar-winning 1992 western "Unforgiven," but it's been part of his persona throughout his long, uneven but mostly honorable career. (Yeah, he did co-star with an orangutan twice, but in 41 films as a leading man -- and 21 as a director -- he's made only a few that are truly unwatchable.) It also helps explain why "True Crime" is so much wittier, more gripping and more honest than anything Eastwood-wannabes like Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Willis have made lately. Remember that Eastwood rose to stardom as a representative of the era of disillusionment, after the A-bomb, Sputnik and JFK. He was already well over 30, and the aquiline face around his piercing eyes was already scarred and weather-beaten. Whether he was riding across the Spanish desert as Sergio Leone's Man With No Name or angrily flinging Dirty Harry's badge into San Francisco Bay, those eyes, and the thin, self-contained smile below them, told us that Clint had looked at the world and looked into his own heart; both were irredeemably fucked.
Early in "True Crime," an electrically paced and brilliantly acted death-row thriller, we see our director and star clad only in a towel after Steve Everett, the investigative reporter he plays, has just slept with his boss' wife. What makes the scene seem both genuine and sexy is that Eastwood, although obviously in excellent physical condition, looks every minute of his 68 years. His body, like his face, is now lined with geological seams and crevasses, and the spectacle of this senior citizen determined to keep playing the rake and hellion is both pathetic and admirable. (Yes, gentle reader, it's deeply unfair that no actress Eastwood's age could pull this off without risking vicious ridicule -- but let's give Susan Sarandon a few years before we say it's impossible.)
Ev, as everyone calls him, used to be a star reporter in New York, before he ran afoul of a vindictive mayor (what an extraordinary notion!) and got banished across country to hack out metro pieces for the Oakland Tribune. Like any good thriller protagonist, he's struggling to find a moral compass and not doing too well at it: Although he's gone off the bottle since his disastrous crusade to free an accused rapist blew up in his face, Ev's compulsive infidelities are endangering his relationship with his wife (Diane Venora) and 6-year-old daughter. His scabrous, foulmouthed editor in chief (James Woods, in a hilarious performance his fans will long treasure) can no longer protect him from the uptight, cuckolded city editor (Denis Leary, playing against type to good effect). As if that weren't enough, the drunk-driving death of a young female colleague -- just after Ev has attempted to seduce her -- dumps the story of Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington), a convicted killer who claims to be innocent and faces execution that very night in San Quentin, right in Ev's self-absorbed lap.
Acting less out of a passion for justice than a desire to prove his own reportorial virility, Ev attacks Beachum's dubious conviction for a convenience-store murder, playing beat-the-clock with missing witnesses and six-year-old recollections while the gruesome preparations for the execution continue. But God, as they say, is in the details, and "True Crime" (adapted from Andrew Klavan's bestseller by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff) is far more about Eastwood's superior eye for composition and sense of pace, and the extraordinary performances he draws from his cast, than about its predictable plot mechanics.
After the huge success of "Unforgiven," Eastwood couldn't get away with being a surprisingly good self-taught director anymore, and the change seemed to unsettle him. He long ago became not just an actor/director but the head of a remarkably efficient and prolific filmmaking empire, but this never stopped him from taking certain well-calculated risks. If his more ambitious works like "Bird" and "White Hunter, Black Heart" were not great films in the end, they were worthy attempts. More recently, he's been drifting; his efforts to go upscale with "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and "The Bridges of Madison County" were a little dispiriting, and the D.C. skullduggery of "Absolute Power" was surprisingly tepid. In "True Crime," Eastwood makes a happy return to the tension-building rhythms of the genre picture, where he has always been most comfortable. (I should think any Hollywood filmmaker would be proud of the westerns "High Plains Drifter" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales," and his directorial debut was the memorable thriller "Play Misty for Me.")
"True Crime" is also a homecoming of a more literal sort. Assembling his usual group of able craftsmen, including cinematographer Jack N. Green, production designer Henry Bumstead and jazz-inflected composer Lennie Niehaus, Eastwood returns to the distinctive light and shadow of Northern California, where he was born and has spent most of his life. How many outsiders would understand that the yard at San Quentin, more days than not, is as gray, damp and bone-chilling as the Tower of London? Best known for his five films as a San Francisco cop, Eastwood has never before made a movie in Oakland, where he actually grew up, and it's hard to imagine a better setting for this yarn of imperfect redemption than the scruffy, multiethnic and oft-derided East Bay metropolis. (Full disclosure: Oakland is my hometown as well as Eastwood's, and I can't be expected to be impartial about it or him.)
Ev bumbles around Oakland and environs in his rusted-out convertible, trying to overcome his own self-loathing, survive the implosion of his marriage and focus on the increasingly fishy details of the Beachum case. "I'm writing a human-interest sidebar," he snarls at a woman in the convenience store where the murder occurred. "Know what that is?" When she says she doesn't, he glares around him for a moment with vintage Eastwoodian contempt before saying, "I don't think I do either," and stalking out. Rushing through a paternal visit on his way to an interview, he carelessly knocks his own daughter off a kiddie-cart at the zoo, scraping her up badly. Even by the standards of Eastwood characters, Ev is an empty shell of a man. As he confesses to Beachum in their prison interview, he's beyond caring about God or justice or anything except his nose for a story.
As we see in frequent cross-cuts, the man preparing to die in prison is far more dignified and mature, and has a happier family life. Beachum could easily have become a caricature of righteousness and religiosity, but Washington ("Out of Sight," "Clockers") brings a luminous soulfulness to his quest not to surrender to bitterness even in the face of horrific injustice. His scenes with his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton of TV's "The Practice") and child, coupled with the obscene joviality of prison routine as the fateful moment approaches, build to a level of harrowing emotional intensity almost unprecedented in Eastwood's work.
If Eastwood was never the angry-white-male fascist some assumed him to be after the "Dirty Harry" pictures, his political and moral stance has always been tough to classify. In "True Crime," he never wields a weapon of any kind, and it is surely one of the most forceful anti-death penalty films in recent memory (I'm guessing one of the screenwriters had Brendan Behan's "The Quare Fellow" on his desk) as well as a mordant satire about the corruption of the news media. As Woods' editor in chief -- whose most printable epithet for Ev is "you soulless sack of shit" -- puts it, "What are issues? People want to read about sex organs and blood. Issues are things we make up so they don't have to feel too nasty about it."
More austere critics than I may view "True Crime" as a fundamentally patronizing film about a white hero trying to save a virtuous black victim. But as I tried to say earlier, Eastwood's peculiar genius lies in the way he lets us have our legends and eat them too. Depicting Ev as an irresistible rogue who finally does the right thing is perfectly consistent, in Eastwood's universe, with making clear that he's a flawed and unhappy human being, quite possibly too far gone to save himself. If we're drawn to the romantic scoundrel in this story rather than the family man, that's our problem. "True Crime's" slam-bang climax stretches plausibility to the snapping point before giving way to an undercooked denouement (and Bay Area natives may notice a few geographical gaffes). But it's one of the most compelling and heartfelt movies Eastwood has ever made -- three decades after "Dirty Harry," the eagle-eyed sheriff of American myth may have aged and mellowed, but he ain't giving up his badge.