On one level, "True Crime" is about the bigotry that informs too many wrong assumptions that members of different racial groups casually make about one another.
A white accountant sees an African-American man, splattered with blood, standing over the limp body of a Caucasian girl, lying on the floor of a convenience store in northern California. Was there a gun in the apparent murderer's hand? Must have been, the businessman later decides, revising history to better fit his own bias, and for the sake of a more exciting story to tell over the office water cooler.
Was that black man the perpetrator of the crime? Of course he was, number-cruncher Dale Porterhouse (Michael Jeter) figures. What other response might the latter give, considering his practiced reaction to the color of the man's skin?
"All prisoners lie," a guard at San Quentin State Prison tells one visitor. Inside, Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington), an auto mechanic wrongly convicted of killing that aforementioned clerk over a $96 debt, is subjected to a humiliating physical examination. Standing nude, he's weighed, measured, poked and asked to urinate in a cup. A physician declares Beachum "healthy as a horse."
He's just another number, a slave of a system that seems to accuse first and raise doubts later, if at all. Beachum is left alone to await execution by the state, and to look to his Christian faith for help in dealing with the impending separation from his loving wife, Bonnie (Lisa Gay Hamilton), and daughter, Gail (Penny Bae Bridges).
An elderly black woman (Hattie Winston), still mourning the stabbing death of her grandson, snaps at a white man who asks if the boy had been involved with drugs and whether he had a gun. Yes, obviously, on both counts, she answers sarcastically. Aren't all our children drug-crazed and bloodthirsty?
Clint Eastwood, directing himself in "True Crime," an uneven if entertaining thriller with a social conscience, has a parallel story to tell. Steve Everett (Eastwood), a reporter, recovering alcoholic and unrepentant womanizer who was run out of the New York Times because of an affair with a teen-age girl, just may find a measure of redemption on the way to writing Beachum's story.
Everett, a hulking figure who speaks in a rasp so hushed that it wouldn't be audible in a real newsroom or any other place of business, may be a bona-fide senior citizen, with deep creases running across his face and a slower gait than in the old days. But he hardly breaks a sweat while putting the moves on sweet 23-year-old co-worker Michelle (Mary McCormack) at a bar or when making love with Patricia (Laila Robins), the wife of Everett's immediate supervisor, an uptight editor named Bob Findley (Denis Leary).
Barbara (Diane Venora) and Kate (Francesca Fisher-Eastwood), Everett's frustrated wife and cute little girl, meanwhile are left with the crumbs of the reporter's life. The workaholic, back at his desk on his day off, rushes so quickly through a trip to the zoo with his daughter that she tumbles out of her stroller, scraping her face in several places.
So here's a newspaper man with a rediscovered nose for news and a callous disregard for almost everything else working triple-time to investigate a murder that was thought to be long-solved and fighting editors Alan Mann (James Woods) and Findley for the right to pursue his job in the best way he sees fit.
Some of the wittiest moments of "True Crime," written by veteran screenwriters Larry Gross and Paul Brickman, and former film critic Stephen Schiff, occur in Mann's office, when the three dyed-in-the-wool journalists regularly cross swords, drawing blood left and right. "I don't think you're capable of feeling anything for anyone," Findley tells Everett. He's nearly correct.
Beachum, on the other hand, seems to be a good man, faithful to his family, who feels with a blazing intensity each and every one of the final moments of his life. He refuses to admit guilt or declare remorse about a crime he didn't commit, even when cajoled by the prison's insensitive, wrongheaded chaplain (Michael McKean).
The prisoner, when saying goodbye to his daughter for what may be the last time, audibly catches his breath, allowing his eye to water and his body to quake. The scene is so sharply drawn that it might cause an advocate of the death penalty to re-evaluate that position.
"True Crime" gets its suspense from a smartly paced race against time. Everett tracks down good leads and dead ends, and Beachum goes through final preparations for execution. Radio and television reporters callously dissect the mechanics of lethal injection, and the camera regularly reminds us of the hours, minutes and then seconds left for the white hero to prove his case and the black victim to beat the executioner. It's a tense, rewarding ride, accomplished with only one car chase and not a single explosion. Go figure.