Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell (Photo: Warner)
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Clint Eastwood
STARS Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell
(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)
It’s unlikely that a more hypocritical movie than Richard Jewell will see the inside of theaters over the course of the next several months. The film is supposed to be about the championing of an innocent man — a hero, no less — who was unjustly and irresponsibly maligned, and that’s a fine and noble pursuit. But when the picture repeatedly sets said objective on the back burner while taking equally irresponsible potshots at other targets, then it tends to diminish the points the movie is attempting to make.
Paul Walter Hauser, who previously played the dimmest of white supremacists in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, stars as Jewell, the security guard thrust into the national spotlight when he discovers a backpack containing explosives at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics. While the pipe bombs do eventually explode, Jewell manages to herd countless civilians away from the area, resulting in only one death rather than the hundreds that conceivably could have occurred.
Initially, Jewell is hailed as a hero, much to the delight of his proud mother Bobi (Kathy Bates). Before long, though, the FBI receives information that places Jewell clearly in its crosshairs. He becomes the agency’s prime suspect, and that information is soon relayed to the public by zealous Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde, oddly not provided a pencil mustache to twirl). A frenzied news media swallows the security guard whole, with even Tom Brokaw painting him in an unflattering light. Jewell has no choice but to obtain the services of a lawyer, so he nabs local attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).
In reality, the problem wasn’t that the FBI initially focused on Jewell — after all, he fit the profile of the “lone bomber,” he had raised flags in the past (including being arrested for impersonating a police officer), and other recent incidents tracked by the FBI had involved a law officer planting explosives and then pretending to find them in order to be the hero. The problem wasn’t even the AJC’s initial news story, which simply stated that Jewell was being investigated by the FBI (true). The problem was the period, as this particular circus occurred one year after the start of the O.J. Simpson trial and two years after Tonya Harding and the knee-whacking incident. It was a bloodletting time when the media worked 24/7 to find the juiciest stories to satisfy sensationalism-seeking viewers and readers (honestly, this period still continues, with no expiration date in sight).
But rather than even squint in the direction of the national mood and place the story within its proper context, director Clint Eastwood and scripter Billy Ray (already repped this season via the duds Gemini Man and Terminator: Dark Fate) set their sights squarely on the usual boogeymen. At least the FBI gets sort of a pass since the aggressive agent on the case (portrayed by Jon Hamm) is a fictional character. Not so Kathy Scruggs, a real-life journalist with a reputation for having been a superb reporter with killer prose and an inclination to protect her sources. In this hit job, though, she’s a fire-breathing witch who not only prays for an interesting story rather than for the victims and (it’s suggested) not only has her male colleague handle the heavy writing but, most offensively, sleeps with a source to obtain her info. Since Scruggs died at the age of 42 of a prescription overdose (like Jewell, who passed away at 44 from diabetes-related issues, she remained haunted by this ordeal), it’s not surprising that her friends, family and former colleagues have defended her since she’s not able to do so herself. They have vehemently objected to the manner in which Eastwood and Ray have raped her, and it’s no wonder.
Yet even Jewell doesn’t come off great, as he’s painted as a simpleton on the order of Forrest Gump (the real man was slightly more complicated and rounded, and he even had girlfriends and later a wife). This portrayal further suggests that he isn’t really the reason for the film but rather an excuse, with the real focus elsewhere.
Aside from last year’s amateurish and awful effort The 15:17 to Paris (see the complete Best & Worst of 2018 here), which I still maintain was directed by an intern while Eastwood slept in his comfortable hotel bed, Richard Jewell benefits from the same professional sheen that the director brings to all his projects. But it’s become increasingly disappointing to note the reversal of the thoughtfulness of his earlier films. For starters, Eastwood’s examination of gun violence (and violence in general) was fascinating and fair — it was thrilling to trace the evolution from Dirty Harry to Unforgiven and even beyond (Gran Torino). But ever since he mistook that RNC chair for Obama, it’s been mostly downhill, with the helmer celebrating a psychotic killer in American Sniper, ludicrously attacking the supportive National Transportation Safety Board in the otherwise accomplished Sully, and now this.
As for the real bomber of the 1996 Olympics? That would be Eric Rudolph, barely mentioned in the film since he’s a right-wing nut who murdered a police officer and blew up abortion clinics and homosexual establishments, and Clint wouldn’t want these messy details to get in the way of his systematic “alternative facts”/”fake news” takedown of societal safety nets. Certainly, the media (and its followers) was irresponsible in hounding Richard Jewell the person. But Richard Jewell the movie shoulders its own share of recklessness and fecklessness.