Tale of hero’s ordeal marred by stereotypical depiction of woman journalist

Richard Jewell crowd control
The title character (Paul Walter Hauser) tries to keep bystanders safe from an imminent bombing in Richard Jewell. (Photos by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Richard Ades

Richard Jewell is the fact-based story of a hero who was turned into a pariah by the media and the FBI. Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the scandal would be rather effective if it weren’t guilty of the same kind of injustice.

The real-life Jewell was working as a security guard during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when he happened upon a suspicious-looking backpack that had been abandoned at a public concert. He alerted the police, who reluctantly investigated and found three pipe bombs inside. Jewell then helped police clear the area, so that when the bombs went off, many members of the public were injured, but only one was killed.

Jewell was at first celebrated for saving lives, but he soon became the FBI’s prime suspect because he fit the profile of a ne’er-do-well who would create such a disaster in order to cast himself as the hero. When the media got hold of this theory, Jewell was effectively tried in the press even though he hadn’t been officially charged.

Eastwood’s account of the injustice, scripted by Billy Ray, begins slowly and effectively. Jewell (a pitch-perfect Paul Walter Hauser) is depicted as an individual whose lifelong dream of becoming a police officer is undercut by his gung-ho attitude. At one point, he loses a job as a college security guard because he insists on barging into dorm rooms and even stopping cars on the highway in order to enforce campus rules.

Stymied in his career and perpetually ridiculed because of his weight and because he lives with his mother (Kathy Bates), Jewell considers himself a loser. In other words, the FBI’s suspicions following the bombing are not completely out of left field.

What is out of left field is Eastwood’s depiction of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story. From the moment she appears, Scruggs (Olivia Wilde in full balls-out mode) comes off as the kind of anything-for-a-story journalist who is more prevalent in movies than in real life.

So single-minded is Scruggs that when the bombs go off in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, her first response is not to express concern for the victims but to pray for a scoop: “Dear God, whoever did this, please let us find him before anyone else does.” (I’m not kidding. Eastwood and Ray actually have her saying this.) Later, apparently not content to rely on divine intervention, she literally trades sex for an FBI agent’s tip on the bureau’s suspicions.

Richard Jewell layer
Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, right) is comforted by his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).

Obviously, the FBI doesn’t come off too well here, as the agent (played by Jon Hamm as an extension of the corruptible Don Draper) allows himself to be manipulated into sharing investigative secrets. And it comes off even worse when the bureau ignores evidence that it has the wrong suspect.

But it’s Scruggs who comes off the worst, especially in the movie’s fabricated claim that she was willing to prostitute herself for a story. This ludicrously exaggerated portrayal is a slap not only at the late reporter but at every woman journalist who dares to take her job seriously.

This being 2019, and Eastwood being the conservative who once pretended a chair was Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention, it’s also tempting to interpret the movie’s denigration of the media and the FBI as a reflection of the current president’s continuous attacks on the Fourth Estate and the so-called “deep state.” Fairly or not, many will see the film as a product of its times and its director’s biases.

If one is able to divorce Richard Jewell from politics and from its outdated depiction of a woman journalist, it has much to recommend it. Besides Hauser’s portrayal of the title character, it boasts relatable performances by Bates as Jewell’s supportive mom; Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, the friend who reluctantly becomes his defense attorney; and Nina Arianda as the lawyer’s immigrant/secretary.

Bryant’s attempt to help a good man reclaim his reputation adds up to absorbing drama. It’s just a shame that it’s weakened by the movie’s own dive into character assassination.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Richard Jewell (rated R) opens Dec. 13 at theaters nationwide.

‘Jersey Boys’ fails to recapture stage show’s magic

Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Chicago was a great movie. So were Cabaret, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

But for every stage musical that made a successful transition to the multiplex, you can probably think of four or five that didn’t. So it’s not really surprising that the movie version of Jersey Boys isn’t half as much fun as its live predecessor.

Director Clint Eastwood made some good choices and some bad choices when he went about adapting Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s biographical tribute to the Four Seasons. One of the good choices was casting people who’d already proved themselves in the stage version, rather than following the usual practice of hiring film stars. That guaranteed that the actors playing the 1960s rock group could actually sing (unlike, say, Russell Crowe in the big-screen version of Les Miz).

One of Eastwood’s questionable choices was hiring Brickman and Elice to adapt their own hit musical. You’d think that would be a plus, as it would encourage the movie to stay true to the original, but staying true to the original isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a movie and a stage musical are two entirely different animals. On the stage, we can put up with dramatic developments being delivered in a kind of shorthand, as their main purpose is to propel us toward the next tune. In a movie, we generally need more realism.

We don’t get that in Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. Not only do many of the characters come off as Italian-American stereotypes, but the dramatic developments often hit us without warning, depriving them of their potential power. That’s especially true of lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), who’s faced with one emotional setback after another involving the women in his life—none of whom we’ve really gotten to know.

Compounding the problem, Young gives a rather unemotional performance in the role he originated on Broadway, though he makes up for it every time he launches into his dead-on impersonation of Valli’s falsetto warbling.

The actors playing the other members of the group—Vincent Piazza as unscrupulous control freak Tommy DiVito, Erich Bergen as songwriter Bob Guadio and Michael Lomenda as bass-voiced Nick Massi—are all fine. Even so, the movie seldom gives us a feel for what drives them other than their egos. And economic necessity: In an early voice-over, Tommy says the only ways to escape from their blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood are the Army, the mob and fame.

Speaking of the mob, it’s well represented by Christopher Walken as “Gyp” DeCarlo, a paternal gangster with a soft spot for the group’s music.

The film does manage to open the story up a bit in the first act, as when Frankie is roped into an attempt to rob a jewelry store. The heist goes humorously wrong when the would-be crooks attempt to load a huge safe into the trunk of an old Studebaker, with disastrous results.

Mostly, though, Eastwood sticks to the stage musical’s arc, which allows the members of the group to take turns narrating the Four Seasons’ rise from obscurity to Top 40 success, even as the quartet is wracked by jealousies and financial problems.

Like the original, the movie is at its best when it re-creates the band’s big hits, like Sherry, Walk Like a Man and, best of all, the Valli solo Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough moments when the musicians are allowed to set aside their problems and just rock out.

As if to make up for this dearth, the closing credits are projected over a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number involving the whole cast, belatedly capturing the kind of energy that made the stage production a Broadway hit.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)