Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of Spotlight, we throw a spotlight on some of our favorite films about journalism.
True Crime (1999)
“We going to argue the merits of journalism?” are the first words spoken by Oakland Tribune reporter Steve Everett (Clint Eastwood) in True Crime. He’s speaking to a 23-year-old colleague in a dingy bar as thunder rattles outside. Everett—“Ev” to those who know him best—is a former New Yorker and a self-described “ex-drunk” with a track record of sleeping with co-workers. In this scene, he moves in to kiss Michelle Ziegler (Mary McCormack), and she reciprocates for a moment before exiting the bar. In a subsequent scene, Everett wakes up with the wife (Laila Robins) of his new editor (a gum-chewing Denis Leary) and, while sliding into his pants, says, “I’ve got to get home and see if the wife and kids still recognize me.” This is difficult, unsentimental territory with which to begin a redemption narrative, made all the more complicated by Eastwood’s low-key stance on the character: He wisely plays Everett not as a blatantly awful womanizer but merely as a clever, funny guy who knows his vices and has rarely thought about the collateral damage they create.
The screenplay—adapted from an Andrew Klavan novel and credited to Paul Brickman (Risky Business), Larry Gross (48 Hrs.), and Stephen Schiff (the 1997 Lolita)—folds Everett’s redemption arc within a ticking-clock structure that allows for some classic Eastwoodian crosscutting. After Michelle’s sudden death in a car accident, Everett is selected to replace her in covering the impending execution of Frank Beechum (Isaiah Washington), who was convicted of the murder of a pregnant grocery clerk six years ago. Everett, like Michelle (whose notes and tape recordings prove instrumental), starts to suspect that Beechum might be innocent—a hunch that pisses off his editor, whose only request was that Everett deliver a simple “human-interest sidebar” about a man’s final hours on death row. Where Eastwood directs many of his own scenes with offbeat humor (including the introduction of a truly baffling homeless character), he and DP Jack N. Green shoot Washington’s scenes with astonishing seriousness and artistry: The figures who approach Beechum’s cell cast subtle, noir-like shadows, and curious items are treated to close-ups, like a blood-pressure monitor or the dripping ash on the end of Beechum’s cigarettes.
Unsurprisingly, Everett’s dive into the Beechum case uncovers racist attitudes: The chief eyewitness to the shooting (Michael Jeter) describes seeing Beechum as “like looking into the eyes of a goat,” an echo of an early scene in which a prison doctor deems Beechum “healthy as a horse.” (There’s also the cruel, underplayed fact that the shooting that threatens to send Beechum to an unjust death occurred on the Fourth Of July.) As attuned as Eastwood is to these societal concerns (not to mention the recurring presence of casual sexism in the workplace), he’s arguably even more interested in the family lives of the two main characters. Everett is a half-there father with a wife (Diane Venora, revisiting notes from Heat in playing the partner of a man consumed by his job) who’s losing patience, while Beechum is loving and appreciative of his wife (LisaGay Hamilton) and daughter. This emotional honesty forgives some of the inexplicable gaffes (like the homeless man) and makes room for scenes of profound resonance: The most tear-jerking incident in the entire movie is the sight of Beechum’s daughter wailing in tears over losing her green crayon.
Availability: True Crime is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.