Friday, March 31, 2017

Clint Eastwood Movie Churches Month: The Last Day of Your Life

True Crime (1999)
We’ve visited the church buildings used to make Movie Churches before, but I believe this film has the first Movie Clergy I’ve met in real life. A couple years after True Crime was made, the Reverend Cecil Williams, who in the film plays “Reverend Williams,” stayed in a hotel where I worked in Healdsburg. Williams is the founder and pastor emeritus of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, and I can attest to him being a very polite man. He is a nice, polite pastor in the film as well.

There is another member of the clergy in the film who doesn’t come off as well as Williams.

True Crime covers one day in the life of a reporter investigating what may be the last day for a man on death row. Clint Eastwood directed the film and stars as the reporter, Steve Everett. The film is an adaptation of a novel with the same title, written by Andrew Klavan (author of the memoir, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ).

Isaiah Washington plays Frank Louis Beechum, a man convicted of the murder of a pregnant convenience store clerk. (Side note: “malice aforethought” and -- usually -- special circumstances have to be shown in order to get a death penalty in California. These conditions demand premeditation, which I’d think would be really hard to prove in a robbery situation. But this is a movie, so…)

Beechum has a record of minor offenses, but according to reliable sources, his life turned around after he met a Christian woman, they married and had a child. Even though he’s about to be put to death, he continues to insist that he’s innocent of the murder and to proclaim his Christian faith.

We see Beechum answering questions from a prison official who should get his possessions after he’s put to death. Beechum answers that his wife will. He is asked who will take possession of his body, and he answers his wife will. When the official advises that funerals can be expensive, Beechum answers, “My church will raise money to pay for it.” (It seems Beechum has seen his church provide in the past and is confident that it will provide in the future, even if he’s not around to see it.)

When we see Beechum with his wife and daughter, he expresses confidence in God’s care. He says to his wife, “You know I’m going to a better place beyond here. I’ll save a place at the table for you.” He tells his daughter, “I will be in heaven with Jesus. I will be waiting for you. And if ever you want to talk to me, I will be listening.”

His daughter seems to have listened to her Sunday School lessons; she’s made her father a picture of “green pastures” (using the language that describes the pastures of Psalm 23 that God the good Shepherd leads his followers into).

When Everett the reporter comes to interview Beechum, the man wants to testify to his faith:  “Tell everyone I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. I believe I’m going to a better place with better justice. I believe the crooked can be made straight, that’s what the Bible says. So that’s how I feel about it.”

From all this, we get the idea that Beechum’s wife, church, pastor, and His Lord have been doing a good job of discipling him in the faith. When we see the Reverend Williams comforting Beechum. On the walk to the death chamber Williams assures Beechum of God’s faithfulness from the Psalms. “Brother Beechum, let me tell you of the Lord, He is my refuge, my fortress. Even when there is no hope, he will deliver you from the snare.”

Sadly, there is another clergyman in the film who doesn’t come off so well.

Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins of This is Spinal Tap and Lenny on the sitcom Laverne and Shirley) plays the Reverend Shillerman, a prison chaplain. We first see Shillerman checking his hair in the mirror before going to see the prisoner. He is obviously a man concerned first with himself, and what he desires more than anything else is to have Beechum confess the murder to him.

The guards tell Shillerman not to bother Beechum because he has a minister of his own coming to visit. This doesn't deter the chaplain.

He visits Beechum anyway and urges him to confess, saying,  “Just wanted you to see if you needed anything, Frank. I understand you’re a Bible reading man, but you know reading the Bible is not enough. A man can’t go to meet His Maker without repenting his sins. A lot of people out there would feel a whole lot better if you repented.”

Beechum responds, “I want you to leave, I have my own pastor coming later.”

Shillerman says,  “There is going to come a time, not far off when you’ll regret [not confessing].”

Beechum calls to the guards, “Get this damn fool out of my face who calls himself a man of God.”

Shillerman says, “I feel sorry for you, Frank. You know, it’s just my job.”

A guard takes Beechum’s side saying, “Everyone wants in on the action, don’t they, Frank?”

Beechum later apologizes to Shillerman, but the chaplain takes this apology as a confession (a leap that has no rational basis). Shillerman goes to the media and claims that Beechum confessed to the murder. Beechum had been adamant that he was innocent of this crime, wanting his daughter to know the truth, but hey, the guy’s going to be dead soon, so if Shillerman can boost his career a bit, why not?

The warden condemns Shillerman’s act as unethical, telling him, “You made me look unprofessional ... and that, spiritually speaking, is not a good thing to do.”

I’m going to grade the two clergymen in the film separately. I have problems theologically with the real life Rev. Williams, though I respect (very much) the work the church has done; still, I’m giving the movie Rev. Williams our highest rating of 4 steeples.

The Rev. Sherman Shillerman? I’ll be charitable and grant him two steeples, since he does carry out Jesus’ command to visit prisoners, he. He just does it so badly.

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