True Crime, Redemption, & Oscar '67

by Gary Gordon
(published in the L.A. Free Press, April '99)

     At the beginning of Oliver Stone's Nixon it's a dark and stormy night. Black clouds and lightning surround the mansion and thunder rumbles like cannon fire. It is clearly a horror story.
     At the beginning of Clint Eastwood's True Crime, the name of the movie appears on the screen in old-fashioned pre-computer newspaper logo letters, and you know we're in for a story right out of the forties, when hard-boiled men were hard-boiled, when life and death mattered, when the search for and the possession of a personal moral code was all-important.
     Or are we?
     Maybe the print is as misleading as the average Network News Talk Show featuring Cokie Roberts, Tim Russert, or John McLaughlin.
     Maybe the name has more than one meaning: True Crime suggests the possibility of false crime. Or maybe, even though the story appears to be about a convicted murderer, there are other, more important crimes this movie is really about.
     Murder is a true crime. What about the death penalty?
     In 1996, Writer-Director Tim Robbins weighed in with his thoughts on this, presenting Dead Man Walking, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The movie was forceful and provocative, and an accompanying CD presented the most chilling song on the subject I've ever heard: Steve Earle's Ellis Unit One.
     Now one of our best auteur directors has added to the discussion, not with an inflammatory piece, but with an entertaining, compelling and challenging one: Clint Eastwood's True Crime.
     A momentary caveat here: I am a Clint Eastwood fan. A fan of the actor and director. His politics? As long as he doesn't hurt anyone, I don't care. If I had the opportunity to talk with him, I wouldn't ask him who he voted for in '72 or '80 or '92 or what it was like being Mayor of Carmel-- I'd ask about everything from High Plains Drifter to A Perfect World, and especially about Unforgiven: in that subversive western (written by David Webb Peoples) we must root for the reformed bad guy to become bad again in order to avenge a woman prostitute mutilated by a cowhand, and, for the sake of his children's welfare, to ultimately kill the overly aggressive sheriff. It was a delicious quagmire for the simplistic moralists-- are you listening, Bill Bennett?
     There are times when Eastwood is a genius (Unforgiven), times when he's subversive, (A Perfect World and High Plains Drifter), revolutionary (Bird), overtly commercial, (In The Line Of Fire, Bridges Of Madison County, and Absolute Power), mischievous (Bronco Billy and the chimpanzee movies), and times when he's sly: True Crime.
     Yes, the world can get murky. Bad guys can do good things, and vice versa; and this is the territory Eastwood dwells in and thrives in. (Oh, what will we teach the children?)
     In True Crime, he plays a hard-scrabble reporter who may or may not have been a hell of an investigative reporter in his day; a womanizer, an alcoholic, a cynical rascal-- some would say a pig, who may have a nose for news-- cliché intended. He's assigned at the last minute to interview Frank Beechum (excellently played by Isaiah Washington), scheduled for execution that night, convicted of killing a pregnant woman in an apparent hold-up attempt, all for $96. His editor, played convincingly by Denis Leary, gives him careful instructions: no investigative piece, just do a human interest sidebar on the convict's last hours alive. Well, we know that won't happen, but it's fun nonetheless.
     In Dead Man Walking, we access the crime, the victims and the killer through a Nun called upon to counsel the killer. The stakes are God and Redemption. There is no doubt the killer did it, so it becomes a questions of what you believe: should the killer be executed? If so or even if not, is there Redemption?
     Heady stuff.
     Eastwood, God bless him, is more pedestrian than that, and that's part of what makes this a sly film.
     Here, we access the crime and the convicted killer through the reporter. The story is not about the death penalty, or so the film would have us believe. It's about whether the reporter will follow his nose for news, gather together all his convictions and self-righteousness and in the face of overwhelming obstacles, get the truth and prove this guy innocent before the lethal injection is administered.
     And, further, will he, in doing so, learn something about himself, his womanizing, two-timing, wrongheaded and hurtful ways. Will he redeem himself in the eyes of his editor, his publisher, his wife who he has betrayed on countless occasions; will he become the father his child needs him to be? Will he redeem himself in these numerous ways such that he will redeem himself in his own eyes not just as a good reporter but as a good person?
     Hmmm, it is about Redemption after all.
     But Eastwood is sly (and here I don't want to risk giving it away), and in some respects, he has paralleled Paul Schrader's Affliction and his own Bird. And in some respects he has even paralleled Life Is Beautiful. He has raised the question: what is the happy ending you want? And, will you settle for some happiness, but not all? After all, Eastwood's reporter could accomplish proving the guy innocent, but not in time, and that would be a happy ending for him, but not for the wrongfully executed man. Or, he could save the guy, but learn nothing other than that, indeed, he was a good reporter; he could still be a lousy, sleazebag.
     He has raised the question: can a person be good at what they do for a living, but still be a rotten person? And if so, on what basis should they be appreciated or condemned?
     And along with that devilish question, he has accomplished what Dead Man Walking couldn't, because we arrive at the scene of the convicted man having to say goodbye to his daughter for the last time, gasping as if breathing will change that reality, and we arrive at the scene of the convict being strapped down in the execution chamber from a different point of view.
     It's more powerful, this point of view, because it's not a discussion of the death penalty, it's just actually happening: Beechum is going to be executed, and like those wrongfully convicted men in Chicago, recently released, maybe he shouldn't be.
     Does Eastwood's character redeem himself? Did Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking? And just how important is redemption? Put another way, is redemption more than just part of a character arc in a movie? Does it bare any relationship to our lives, our values?
     But here again we enter the discussion of the importance of a film and its relationship to us, our culture, our history. Isn't it enough for a movie to just be entertaining? Well, okay, True Crime is entertaining. It's a solid whodunit suspense film with superb acting (the scenes between Eastwood, Leary, and James Woods as the publisher really crackle-- Quentin fans, that's dialogue!).
     However, movies are the literature-- not just the comic books, airplane books and romance novels-- of our times. That's about what Norman Jewison said at the Oscar ceremony the other night, and he should know. He's an accomplished director who received the prestigious Irving Thalberg Award. In The Heat Of The Night is one of his films. A Soldier's Story is another.
     Jewison should not be confused with Elia Kazan, the noted and talented director who may have a nose for directing but, like Eastwood's reporter, not for much else: Kazan's the one who named names, telling the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about writers, directors and actors-- friends and associates of his-- who were communists in the 30s and 40s (when the USSR was out ally in WWII). And he is unrepentant for that, possibly believing, as his supporters suggest, that films like On The Waterfront make up for his treachery.
     In On The Waterfront Marlon Brando's character Terry Malloy tries to do the right thing, redeem himself, by "snitching" to the Feds about the gangsters who run the Longshoreman's Union and who kill troublemakers.
     Sadly, Kazan probably sees himself as Terry Malloy using the simple equation: Terry named names, Elia named names, therefore both are virtuous.
     And even in these days of abusive Federal prosecutors, "friends" who secretly tape record friends, and cops who shoot innocent people forty-one times, those who supported Kazan's receiving of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar would have us believe that Elia Kazan's contribution to destroying careers of artists who had been Communists is simply the same as Terry Malloy telling the Feds about gangsters. Other Kazan defenders offer the twisted rationale that if it's okay to forgive Clinton for his private indiscretions (blowjobs from women other than his wife) it's also okay to forgive Kazan his "private" indiscretions (ruining careers).
     The truth is, Elia Kazan is no Terry Malloy. And many people know it, and know the difference. (Thank you, Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, and all the rest for sitting and not applauding when Kazan was given the award.)
     Kazan may be great at what he does professionally, but he has yet to redeem himself as a person. Equating gangsters with writers who were communists and equating HUAC with the forces of good and justice-- well, it's laughable or pathetic, depending on your mood. Clearly he felt he had to do what he did, but his failure to repent, to redeem himself, that takes it out of the morally ambiguous realm, rack focuses the murkiness into stark relief, and may in fact reveal the True Crime.
     Ironically, the last line of dialogue in On The Waterfront is: "Back to work". In the real world, Kazan and HUAC said "Back to work, but not you, or you, or you, because we don't like your beliefs, friends, affiliations." And that was a True Crime.
     Additionally ironic was the coincidental timing of Stanley Kubrick's death and the resulting tribute to him at the Oscar ceremony, which included Spartacus, writer Dalton Trumbo's first post-blacklist screen credit, in which everyone at the end stands defiant in the face of tyranny-- ah, if only Kazan had stood with his fellow crusaders.
     But it's easy to get confused (which is why the search for and possession of a moral code is still as important as it was during the 40s, even if it's usually no longer the subject of movies).
     In writing about the history of the Oscars in a recent L.A. Times, the writer actually got confused and declared is was a gaffe to give the best picture award to In The Heat Of The Night in 1967, "overlooking" the groundbreaking films Bonnie & Clyde, and The Graduate.
     To give the Academy Award to an excellent, provocative and entertaining film about race relations in 1967 (when schools near my town still had separate bathrooms and drinking fountains) was downright revolutionary!
     And as for Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate: one film was a violent, amusing and sometimes erotic poem about two low-life robbers and killers, and the other was an amusing sketch about infidelity and a confused young man whose goal was to marry a girl he barely knew-- this at a time when hundreds of thousands of people his age were not confused and were actively engaged in the fight for Civil Rights and/or against the War in Vietnam.
     Of course, some might argue that Bonnie & Clyde was really about rebellious youth and The Graduate was really about alienation. But that would be a True Crime.