Is Clint Eastwood about ready to retire? His Oscar-winning Unforgiven was, to these eyes, a pristine work of art and entertainment; but that was also seven years ago, and since then, also to these eyes, he has been sliding and coasting. The overlong and finally mawkish A Perfect World, the decent but unnecessary Bridges of Madison County, the mundane Absolute Power, the too-leisurely Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil …. These are films for grown-ups, with a contemplative pace to match, and regardless of their flaws, they are honorable and rock-solid pieces of craftsmanship — hardly an inelegant moment in them. What they aren’t is exciting. Bidding farewell to his sixties, Eastwood has become an almost stubbornly tame director, as if atoning for the bad taste of his box-office reign as Dirty Harry.
Eastwood’s new one as director-star, True Crime, isn’t nearly as phlegmatic as his last couple of efforts. Taking his cameras into the offices of a fictional Oakland newspaper, Clint gets a little buzz going, especially when he puts James Woods (the editor in chief) and Denis Leary (news editor) in the same room. When Clint, as chewed-up warhorse reporter Steve Everett, joins them in the room, we forget whatever the movie’s supposed to be about. Woods is at his withering best; Leary, perhaps feeling outgunned, reins himself in and plays his editor as borderline mild-mannered — the novelty of that is almost as much fun to watch as Leary’s usual ranting. I’ll always remember Clint inviting Denis Leary to punch him in the face — it’s one of those nice moments for fans of both actors — but I’ve already forgotten most of the material that’s supposed to be the plot’s main motor.
And what’s that? Oh, the usual beat-the-clock scenario. Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington) is on death row, scheduled for execution in 12 hours, and he might be innocent of the murder he was convicted for. Everett, with his “nose” for news and his need to do something good with his life (he’s just about womanized his way out of his marriage), digs around and tries to find evidence that someone else, not Frank, pulled the trigger on a pregnant cashier clerk.
That isn’t really what True Crime is about, though. Clint Eastwood will be 70 next year, and he has a little daughter (Francesca Fisher-Eastwood, who appears in the movie as Everett’s daughter) young enough to be his great-granddaughter. A scene in which Everett gives his little girl a “speed zoo” trip — rushing her through the zoo because he’s on a deadline — is touching for reasons that have nothing to do with the plot. And we see the condemned Frank Beachum saying a long goodbye to his own daughter. The movie is about the pain of fathers who won’t live to see their little girls grow up, and who, whether because of jail or work, can’t spend what little time they have left with their daughters.
Once I picked up on that, the plot didn’t get less routine, but everything around it got more telling. Everett, we see, fools around with much younger women out of fear of his own mortality (is that also why Clint has traditionally done likewise?). Meanwhile, the story drifts away, and the movie is structured in a conventional way that lets us know it won’t end tragically (as, say, A Perfect World did). There are no surprises — no Primal Fear revelation, no defeatist ending in which Everett’s efforts come to naught. (Some may register a bit of surprise that the former Dirty Harry now comes down, in effect, against capital punishment.) What keeps the movie alive is its subtext. It’s always interesting to read between the lines of Eastwood’s recent movies and see what’s really on his mind, but I wish he’d be a little more picky about his material.