Richard Jewell

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/12/19 14:52:59

"True Crime or Sudden Impact"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Richard Jewell was hardly the first person to find himself the target of worldwide scrutiny after being caught in the grips of the 24-hour news cycle—by the time he came along, the sagas of such people as Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt and OJ Simpson had already provided a seemingly endless amount of fodder for the curious. However, Jewell was arguably the first who did not deserve the notoriety that would soon become synonymous with his name, certainly not to the degree that he received. Here was a man who performed a genuinely heroic act that saved many lives but wound up being cast as a villain by investigators, the media and the public who were all looking for someone to blame and who figured that he fit the bill. The details of his story and the issues raise by it are so startling—not to mention weirdly timely even more than twenty years down the line—that perhaps the only way that someone could make a movie out of what happened and not have it work on even the most fundamental level would be if someone were take those details and attempt gild the proverbial lily with enough hard-sell outrage to transform a gripping narrative into outright propaganda. That, alas, is exactly the approach employed by Clint Eastwood for his latest film, “Richard Jewell,” in which he seems more interested in settling scores with two groups that he has long taken to task bot on and off the screen—authority figures and the media—and throwing red meat to the conservative crowds that he now perceives as being his target audience than he is in telling Jewell’s story and the end result finds him treating both his subject and his audience with nearly as much condescension as he accuses others of doing throughout.

As seen here, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is an ordinary salt-of-the-earth guy from Georgia who lives with and cares for his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), owns plenty of guns and has an idealism about law enforcement—a world he dearly wants to be a part of—that is almost as outsized as his physical bearing. Unfortunately for him, his desire to be seen as part of the law enforcement community has led to a somewhat checkered employment past, including a stint as a campus security guard that led to his firing for harassing students and pulling over cars despite not being an actual police officer. In 1996, he gets a job as a security guard during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta is was working the crowd near the site of a concert when he notices a suspicious package and calls it in. The package contains three pipe bombs and while it does go off, killing one person and injuring 111 others (another person would die as the result of heart attack), Jewell’s discovery and subsequent clearing of much of the area beforehand clearly helps to reduce the numbers of dead and injured. Once identified, he is instantly dubbed a national hero and receives the highest accolades a hero could received at the time—a live interview with Katie Couric and an offer for a book deal from a slick New York publisher who will get someone else to do the actual writing.

It sounds like a story straight out of Horatio Alger but the worm quickly turns one him with a vengeance. After watching the interview, the hateful president of the college where Jewell used to work at contacts the FBI with his vague suspicions about his former employee’s alleged heroics. After hearing these accusations and with no other significant leads to speak of, FBI agents Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez) start building a case with Jewell himself as a prime suspect—after all, he was at the scene, his behavior there was certainly singular and something about his behavior just seems off. When he goes in to speak with the FBI, under the impression that he is aiding in their investigation, he does himself no favors as his eagerness to please and to be seen as an equal to the Feds only makes him look guiltier in their eyes. Things blow up when Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a cravenly ambitious reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, runs with the story that the FBI suspects Jewell as the bomber and he and his mother become virtual prisoners in their apartment as public opinion instantly turns against him and the feds go to extreme measures to try to build a real case against him. The only person in Jewell’s corner is Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a libertarian lawyer who had met and was impressed with Jewell a few years earlier and who thinks that he is getting a bum rap. While trying to build a defense for his friend, Watson has the equally difficult task of trying to finally convince Jewell that the federal officers that he still inexplicably looks up to are not looking out for him and that he needs to drop the hero worship if he is to get out of his predicament.

With a narrative that takes a look at the dark side of heroism, especially in how acts of genuine bravery and singular action can be questioned and misinterpreted by authority figures and so-called experts who may know a lot about things in the abstract but who come across as clueless in regard to how things are in the real world, “Richard Jewell” is a film that almost seems tailor-made for Eastwood to bring to the screen. In fact, there are times in which the film uncannily feels like a mirror image of “Sully,” Eastwood’s 2016 look at pilot Chesley Sullenberger and how his heroic decision to land his malfunctioning plane in the Hudson River saved the lives of everyone on board but were second-guessed by the National Transportation and Safety Board. In that film, Eastwood wisely focused less on the details of the case that government officials tries to build against him (an aspect somewhat trumped up for dramatic purposes) and more on his central character and his conflicted reaction to being dubbed a hero around the world simply for doing his job while at the same time trying to justify those very actions to those who hold his fate in their hands. The result was a subtle and graceful work that remains one of Eastwood’s most effective films in recent years and had “Richard Jewell” played along those lines, it could have been just as fascinating and pertinent as its predecessor.

Of course, 2016 was a long time ago and in adapting Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article on the case, Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray have instead elected to transform the story into a piece of conservative-leaning propaganda that goes out of its way to play the MAGA crowds like a piano by deploying both their totems (such as Tupperware, guns and even a Confederate flag in the background during a key moment) and their fears, including the notion of the government and the media literally getting into bed together to destroy an ordinary man who doesn’t conform to their elitist attitudes. The trouble is that, much like the FBI in the film, Eastwood goes to such absurd lengths to assert his bona fides to the conservative crowd that the entire film becomes an exercise in overkill so overblown that even the most outrageous real-life details of what Jewell faced that are depicted here feel phony. The film also glosses over the potentially discomfiting fact that there were aspects of Jewell’s life and character that would have raised eyebrows for any competent investigator. The implication is that things haven’t changed a bit in the 23 years since these events occurred and that the entire power structure seems to exist only to bring doughy guys to their knees who are outside of the system. If you think that I am reaching in the implication that we are supposed to compare Jewell’s travails with the media and the powers that be with Donald Trump and his battles against them, consider the fact that the first scene in the film finds Richard Jewell becoming involved in an actual quid pro quo agreement (complete with detailed explanation) with Watson. Yes, it really is that subtle.

At the same time, Eastwood never seems to display any particular interest in Jewell as a character or the particulars of his case. Throughout the film, he is depicted as little more than a good-hearted rube whose crime is being eager to please and who rarely seems to have any sort of reaction to what is going on around him—this attempt to make him into an Everyman holy fool caricature is in its way just as condescending to him as the media was at the time. The film also fails to give any sense of how the outside world is reacting to his story as it unfolds, possibly because to do so might recognize the fact that many in the audience rooting for Jewell probably demonized him back in the day when he was the target. That isn’t the only time Eastwood goes out of his way to release conservative viewers from any sense of culpability regarding the story. When it comes to Eric Rudolph—the man who actually did the bombing and who committed a number of additional explosive attacks motivated by his anti-abortion and anti-gay views before being captured in 2003—all there is of him is a mention of his name at the very end with no potentially discomforting discussion of the reasons behind his acts. (Eastwood presumably needed to drop such material in order to make room for a title card about the baby-sitting schedule of Richard’s mother.)

Instead of showing any interest in Jewell as a person, Eastwood seems far more interested in excoriating the media—whose part in the entire debacle cannot be denied—by assigning every one of their sins, relevant or not, to the character of Kathy Scruggs, who was indeed a real person and who, having died in 2001, is no longer around to defend herself against her portrayal here. Her presence in the film has inspired a lot of pre-release controversy, especially in a scene in which it is heavily implied that she sleeps with Tom in order to get the information about Jewell being a person of interest that she uses as the basis of her big scoop. This bit is odious in the way that it brings up, without any particular basis, the tired old trope of the female reporter who sleeps with her sources in exchange for a big story, but it is hardly the only problematic aspect with her character. Throughout, she is portrayed as a vain, self-absorbed (her first scene has her babbling in a newsroom about how she needs to get breast implants) glory seeker who sneaks into people’s cars to get information, admits that she is a bad writer whose work is salvaged by her male co-worker and doesn’t give a damn about anyone she hurts in the way to fame and glory. (She is such a monster that she can’t even appreciate such all-American things as the Olympics or a Kenny Rogers concert.) Then, after portraying her as a gargoyle throughout, Eastwood puts her in her place with a final scene in which the now-chastened Kathy is at a Jewell press conference and, now knowing that he couldn’t have done it, weeps copious tears in the middle of it, just like any hard-bitten reporter would do in a similar situation. The media committed plenty of sins in this story but to attribute them all to her seems like an exercise in petty cruelty and to watch Olivia Wilde (herself the daughter of a journalist) try in vain to make something out of the character is beyond embarrassing. The hell of it is that a potentially good and interesting movie could have been made from Scruggs’s perspective that could have effectively tapped into the key issues covered here. Of course, to do that would require a filmmaker more interested in nuance than grandstanding hyperbole—or at least someone capable of recognizing the fact that Scruggs’s reporting was technically accurate based on the information that she was given at the time and that she did not simply pull Jewell’s name out of a hate—and we all know how well nuance sells these days.

What makes “Richard Jewell” even more infuriating is that there are moments that do work and show the kind of film that might have resulted if Eastwood had chosen to ease up on the red meat and done something a little more subtle and offbeat along the lines of his more idiosyncratic directorial outings. As Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser (who played one of the bumbling conspirators in “I, Tonya”) is really good, effectively channeling his desire to do good and fit in with the people he idolized, even when he must have realized that to do so was to dig his own grave, and he more than holds his own in his scenes with Rockwell, Hamm and Bates, instantly creating unique dynamics with all three of them. The extended sequence leading up to the actual bombing is impeccably staged and executed and is one of the few times in recent memory where you get the sense that Eastwood actually thought out how to shoot a sequence in advance instead of simply winging it on the set and wrapping after a couple of takes. Beyond those aspects, though, “Richard Jewell” is a film that takes a potentially compelling narrative and then squanders it by presenting it in a ham-fisted manner that utter fails to understand why this particular story might be of relevance today in other than the broadest and crudest of ways. Too bad that the Clint Eastwood of old, the one whose work could not be pinned down in simple ideological terms, didn’t get a chance to make a film of the Richard Jewell story because I think he might have really made something of it, at least something not nearly as shameless as this.

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