Like many of the films Clint Eastwood has directed in the last 10 years or so—since about Gran Torino on—his latest, Richard Jewell, is an expertly made movie with a subtext that reveals a disturbing agenda. The truth is, the story of the socially awkward Georgia security guard whose quick thinking just before a bomb went off during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta saved hundreds of lives is a great subject for a film, especially since the FBI and media seemed to make it their mission to demonize Jewell and label him a terrorist before the investigation into the bombing had even really begun.
There are plenty of worthy messages in the story of Jewell (played here with an almost eerie likeness by Paul Walter Hauser, who made such an impact as the dumber-than-a-post sidekick in I, Tonya), especially when you consider how eager the FBI was to find an immediate scapegoat for the bombing so that the Olympics wouldn’t have to be shut down. They painted Jewell as a law-enforcement wannabe (which he was) who sought the spotlight for heroic actions in low-stakes security jobs (also true). He also still lived with his aging mother (Kathy Bates), which seemed to be for many the final nail in his coffin of guilt.
Jewell was hired by Olympic organizers to be part of the security team, which essentially meant standing around and alerting the real police if they saw anything suspicious. But when Jewell spots an abandoned backpack under a bench during a pre-Olympics concert, it sets off a chain of events that gets most people clear of the bomb’s blast and, at least for a couple of days, made him an international hero. It’s not unusual for investigators to look at the person who found the bomb as a possible suspect (as one agent said, it’s like looking at the person who found the body in a murder investigation), but it’s Jewell’s profile that just doesn’t sit right with lead agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and partner Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez), who seem to land on Jewell because they can’t find anybody else.
The part of Eastwood’s storytelling (working from a screenplay by Bill Ray, adapting a magazine article by Marie Brenner) that I found most disturbing involves the portrayal of real-life newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who has since died and is not around to counter any of the accusations leveled at her in this movie. She’s painted as a hard-drinking woman of loose morals both in and out of the newsroom. And when she finds Shaw in a local bar and begins pressuring him for some tidbit about the case, she essentially trades sex for the scoop that the FBI has turned its attentions to Jewell.
In real life, Scruggs was never accused of sleeping with sources let alone with being a barely stable person with a loose grip on the facts or how to gather them, and to portray a now-dead woman in such a light is beyond deplorable. To some degree, I expect this kind of casual disrespect of women and journalists from Eastwood, but I’m especially disappointed that Wilde, the woman who directed one of the great female empowerment coming-of-age stories in recent memory, Booksmart, would come anywhere near this material or character as written. She is the clear villain in this work, for doing little more than reporting that Jewell was initially considered a suspect—which he was—and every time she appears on screen, I braced myself for another brutal lashing of Scruggs reputation.
But as I said at the beginning, aside from that glaring miscalculation, most of Richard Jewell is exceedingly well made. In terms of performances, the best comes from Sam Rockwell as attorney and Jewell’s former employer Watson Bryant, who may not have been the best choice to represent Jewell, but he was the only attorney he knew and someone he considered a friend, and that was good enough for Jewell. The character of Bryant is further deepened thanks to a really compelling relationship he has with his only employee, Nadya (Nina Arianda), whose opinion he seems to trust without question.
Hamm seems to have carved out a nice set of characters in 2019 who all seem to embody flawed, all-American men of authority (in such films as The Report and Lucy in the Sky), who seem to seek a shortcut to an answer rather than take the longer road to the truth. Here, he plays the one that’s easiest to dislike, which is impressive considering how likable Hamm can be on his worst day. The moment of pure rage for audiences will likely occur when his Agent Shaw admits that the timing of Jewell’s presence at the bomb site doesn’t line up with the bomber’s pay phone call to police. The FBI knew for a while Jewell couldn’t have been the bomber but continued to pursue him as a member of some sort of conspiracy for months, ruining his life and reputation in the process.
Richard Jewell is a nice-looking movie with a handful of not just good performances, but some of the most memorable you’ll see all year. But its pluses come at the price of a couple of really ugly minuses. Based on his politics, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Eastwood has chosen to make a movie in which the mainstream media and an overreaching government agency are the antagonists, but going after a deceased journalist seems like a new low for this accomplished filmmaker.
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