The time frame of the film is 24 hours, and while we're following Everett as he moves through his day, we're also counting down the minutes in the last day in the life of Frank Beachum (an impressive Isaiah Washington). The crime for which Beachum is being executed took place six years earlier. Since his sentencing, Beachum has come to terms with his conviction (though he's never confessed his guilt), deepened his faith in God, and grown even closer to his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and their young daughter (Penny Rae Bridges).

Having exhausted all their legal appeals, Beachum and his wife no longer entertain the possibility of any last-minute miracles. Everett, though, thinks he smells something funny. He's got a nose, he tells his editor-in-chief (a robust James Woods) -- that's about all he's got. And for the last several years, while he was drinking, his nose was no longer dependable. (It went very wrong, for example, on a controversial rape case. Now that he's sober again, he thinks his instincts are back on track, and he begins to conduct a quickie investigation, hoping to prove Beachum's innocence, certainly, but, of even greater importance, vindicate himself and his "hunches.")

The problem here has less to do with content and more with style. From the outset, Eastwood's basic approach toward his own character is light-fingered and comical. He encourages us to view Everett as an old dinosaur from an earlier age of man, a newspaper man from the old school. In his easygoing way as a director, he draws laughs out of Everett's anachronism -- the fact that he won't acknowledge the existence of, say, secondhand smoke; or that it's not cool to ask a female colleague to fetch him a cup of coffee. He wants, for example, to be a good daddy, but he blows an outing with his baby daughter by trying to combine a visit to the zoo with a little reporting. The result is "speed zoo," which leaves his daughter crying and covered with Band-Aids and Everett's wife (Diane Venora) convinced that their relationship is over.

Beachum also has a daughter, and, clearly, Eastwood wants to draw parallels between the accused murderer -- who seems to have excellent parenting skills and a good marriage -- and Everett, but they never emerge. That Eastwood cast his wife, Dina; his daughter Francesca; and her mother, Frances Fisher, in the film has led some reviewers to speculate about the personal nature of the film. The feel of the picture is far too slack and lackadaisical to be personal. The notion that a reporter could be assigned to a story for a 12-hour period and end up breaking the case and saving the accused man's life is preposterous.

What's more, Eastwood has always played the dinosaur, and from the general lack of sharpness in nearly every aspect of the film, it seems as if he is almost as bored with this idea as we are. Nearly every aspect of the picture feels recycled. The scenes of agitated bantering between Everett and his editor are macho pissing contests of the sort that we used to see when Eastwood was called on the carpet as a detective by a higher-ranking officer sick and tired of watching him turn the streets of the city into a shooting gallery. Throughout all this, the only emotion Everett shows is irritation. During the jailhouse interview he has with Beachum, he seems completely indifferent to the answers Beachum gives. When Beachum and his wife ask whether he believes their story, Everett turns around and growls back his answer. It's as if Everett had an afternoon tee-time and the interview was causing him to be late.

The whole project feels lazy and halfhearted, not least of all the finale, in which Everett tries to beat the clock by driving the woman who has the one piece of evidence that might save Beachum to the governor's house so that he can make that all important, last-minute call to the prison before the clock ticks its last tock. By that point, though, whatever it was they were pumping into Beachum's arm looked mighty good to me.

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-- Hal Hinson

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