Photo by Sam Emerson

THE STORY IS NEARLY AS OLD AS THE MOVIES — A used-up reporter tries to save a condemned prisoner, strays onto the moral high ground and finishes with a race to the rescue. But since the reporter is played by the film's director and star, Clint Eastwood, working close to the top of his form, nothing is as it first seems. When we meet Eastwood's character, Steve Everett, an anonymous name for a man who's anything but, he's sitting in an Oakland bar trying to hustle a woman a third his age. He's flirting heavily, eyes shuttling sideways, pretending to listen to her story about some prisoner scheduled to die the next night. She's drunk, trusting and voluble in that after-hours way. There's a low-current voltage to the conversation, but neither her companion nor we are paying much attention to what she's saying. Our attention is on him, and whether he — though now we're thinking more of Eastwood than Everett — will be able to land the girl in the tight dress. That's the first kink: The character and his real-life counterpart mean more than the plot. Here's the second: The girl says no.

True Crime is the 22nd film Eastwood has directed, and the best since his flawed masterpiece A Perfect World. The new film doesn't have the elegiac ache of that earlier feature, but it has more complex politics than those found in his deliciously venomous ode to the Clinton era, Absolute Power, and enough wit and intelligence to make its flimsy plotting seem less ridiculous. Here, the central preoccupation seems to be race, specifically the torturous relationships among whites and blacks. The condemned prisoner is a black man named Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington, doing lovely work with a minimum of screen time), who's been convicted of shooting to death a white, pregnant clerk some half a dozen years earlier. Twenty-four hours after the opening credits, Beachum is to be executed by lethal injection, his appeals having run out. He has a wife, a young daughter and faith in Jesus, but nothing close to a prayer until Everett blunders onto his story.

But True Crime (the film's title appears in the same sort of ecclesiastical typeface as that of the New York Times masthead) turns out to be only partly about the felony Beachum may have committed, and the possible wrong of his imprisonment. The truer, perhaps truest, crime is Everett's, that of a man who's failed at nearly every important role he's taken — husband, father, friend. That doesn't make Beachum incidental, or turn him into a foil for some sanctifying consciousness-raising, but there's no mistaking that Eastwood is making a movie about a white man. On a crude level, this is a story about a white reporter who tries to save a black convict. But that's just the plot, the stuff that points us in one direction, then another, and introduces us to the players, including Beachum's family, as well as Everett's. The important stuff is everything in between the prison visits, the newspaper hubbub and various usual suspects — it's the attention to the ways a man succeeds and fails at being a man.

IN HIS BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, CRITIC David Thomson closed his appraisal of Eastwood with a description of the Wolfgang Petersen­directed thriller In the Line of Fire. “The picture had everything,” Thomson wrote of the 1993 hit, “except one hint or glimmer that Eastwood wants to be more than the best and smoothest engine on the road . . . The test that awaits Eastwood is whether he can find himself in neurosis and failure.” Since then, Eastwood has gone on to direct three movies. Although intensely disliked by Clinton apologists, Absolute Power was the best of the lot, a prescient romp about executive arrogance. The Bridges of Madison County and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a damp pair of adaptations, remain interesting for what they say about their director's ongoing preoccupations with masculinity, but neither film's failures seemed to be the noble sort Thomson had been seeking.

The character of Steve Everett is something different for Eastwood, but you can see what he found appealing. (In the interest of full disclosure, I cheerfully admit to being a longtime acquaintance of Larry Gross, who with Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff wrote the screenplay.) Everett is a failure whose keen self-consciousness doesn't necessarily translate into self-awareness or — and this is the more familiar Eastwood ending — violence. On the wagon barely two months, and a chronic womanizer, Everett has a wife whose patience is about to run out and a little girl he keeps at arm's distance and doesn't seem interested in drawing much closer. As if to deepen the point, in one outlandish scene Everett takes his 4-year-old to the zoo, plops her into a stroller and races about for a round of what he calls “speed zoo,” chanting “we go fast” as he perilously careers from one exhibit to the next.

It ends badly, though not disastrously, with tears, Band-Aids and Everett's hurried apology, tendered right before he rushes off to an interview. At no moment is there an insinuation that the character is a better man or father for the experience. He feels a little guilty, but not much — and so what? Does being a lousy father, or at least an imperfect one, make him a bad man? Does cheating, drinking or nearly blowing out his career? Neither quitting the booze nor attempting to save Beachum turns Everett into anything special, they merely reaffirm the humanness of his being. Once again, as he has before with the role of the hero, Eastwood is using identity — parent, husband, worker, savior, drunk — to ask the fundamental question: Is this what defines a man? Or is a man measured, and remembered, by the worth of his actions? The answer is obvious in the sense of humanness evident everywhere in the film — in the way a cigarette turns to ash in Beachum's fingers, in the way Diane Venora, as Everett's sad wife, nervously struggles to bring her husband and daughter together. But nowhere is it more evident than in the director's own performance.

As with nearly every male star in Hollywood, Eastwood likes to pair himself with younger women, but here his vanity doesn't get the better of his art. In True Crime, Eastwood's womanizer strikes out more than he wins, and there's a new vulnerability to the rejection. During the film's opening scene, Eastwood lets us see Everett openly leering at his young companion, whose talk is less enthralling to him than her body. And when she turns him down, there's regret in her rebuff for the younger man who once was. Eastwood is playing a womanizer, but a womanizer newly dependent on his uncertain charms because his own beauty is almost a memory. Later, when Everett nails his boss's wife, Eastwood makes sure to show himself with only a towel around his waist. There's something shocking about the star's nakedness. Eastwood looks good for his age — he turns 69 in May — but he also looks his age. His face is a pucker of wrinkles, and when he hitches up his pants to tuck in his shirt there's something of an old man in the gesture, or maybe it's the way the pants flap around those skinny legs. The best and smoothest engine still purrs, but now it knows that being first to the finish is no longer what counts. Which is why when Eastwood hits the gas during an 11th-hour chase sequence in True Crime, it's as much a send-up of genre cliché as it is absolutely necessary. Eastwood is still in the race, he just doesn't need to outrun the years anymore — or his own legend.

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