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.
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.