*** out of ****
(for strong language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images)
Released: December 13, 2019
Runtime: 129 minutes
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Ian Gomez
A true story about how the government and media conspire together to spin a false narrative that frames an innocent person. Yeah, I’d say that’s relevant.
Oddly enough, relevancy is about all Richard Jewell – a film about an injustice from nearly 25 years ago – has going for it. That, and a trio of core performances. The power they wield ultimately hits hard and makes its impact, in spite of yet more lethargic late-career filmmaking from director Clint Eastwood.
After a pipe bomb exploded at a concert in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics, Richard Jewell – a security guard who first spotted the backpack that held the explosives – went from being a national hero to the prime suspect in a matter of days. With zero evidence and no leads, the FBI took an unrelated aspersion from a former Jewell employer and ran with it, focusing solely on Jewell as the likely terrorist.
Without a case to build, they crafted a profile instead: a hero cop wannabe. It was an accurate descriptor of Jewell but the FBI twisted that to ascribe motive. In truth, that personality quirk was Richard Jewell’s only crime. Then, after secret-sourcing their fiction to an ambitious newspaper reporter, the FBI’s flimsy “case” (if it could even be called that) quickly spread like wildfire across national news outlets.
And this was before social media.
In short order, Tom Brokaw himself was speaking with authority on broadcast television that the FBI had enough to charge Jewell but was simply tying up loose ends before making an arrest. But of course, Richard Jewell was completely innocent.
Eastwood and veteran screenwriter Billy Ray (scribe of films ranging from Captain Phillips to The Hunger Games) treat this whole tragedy – from the tragic bombing to the public destruction of Jewell – with the necessary respect and sobriety it necessitates.
Ironically, though, one of the primary villains in this telling is unduly slandered: Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Kathy Scruggs, who’s depicted as having traded sex for a scoop. It’s a sleazy bit of uncorroborated artistic license (that also implicates the conduct of the lead FBI agent), and it’s particularly nasty given that Scruggs has since been deceased and can’t even defend herself.
This tawdry excess is Exhibit A of how obnoxious Scruggs and fictionalized FBI agent Tom Shaw are portrayed; Scruggs especially, who is a full-blown caricature of cold, calculating, and absolutely ruthless ambition. There’s one maniacal moment in particular (in the news office) that must’ve had actress Olivia Wilde asking Eastwood, “Uh…seriously?” Shaw doesn’t fare much better, despite a solid turn from the ever-reliable Jon Hamm.
What’s truly unfortunate is that these extremes weren’t even necessary for Eastwood to take; the rush to judgment on the part of Scruggs, the FBI, and the media at large was bad enough as it had actually occurred. The bulk of that is well-documented here, thankfully, but the salacious add-ons are notable hypocrisies for a movie about unjust defamation, even if the offenders do deserve a harsh portrayal.
Eastwood’s skills as a director are apparent in how the actual bombing sequence is staged and assembled, but his shortcomings as a nearly 90-year-old storyteller drag the overall telling. The dramatic pace lacks urgency and its presentation is, at best, workmanlike. The filmmaking is professionally rendered but it lacks a passionate conviction.
And yet Richard Jewell compels just enough – and at the most important moments – because of Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, and Paul Walter Hauser in the title role. Hauser’s portrayal makes for an intriguing character study, not only in the affectations of his slow Southern drawl, lumbering overweight gait, and deceptively sharp mind, but especially in taking on Jewell’s less admirable eccentricities, including an overzealous law-and-order posture that caused peers and citizens alike to (understandably) dismiss rather than respect him. Hauser humanizes Jewell, even in the man’s by-the-book abrasiveness and nerdy hick foibles.
As good as it is, though, Hauser’s performance is elevated by the presence of Sam Rockwell. The recent Oscar-winner plays Watson Bryant, a friend of Jewell’s who is first introduced in the film’s prologue. He comes back around post-bombing as the lawyer who agrees to defend Jewell and take on the two towering, all-powerful institutions working in tandem against his vulnerable client.
Rockwell brings an earnest energy that the rest of the movie lacks, and so it’s no surprise that Hauser’s energy and range rises considerably to a whole other level when they share the screen. Rockwell elevates the entire film, and Hauser’s work (which was already solid in its foundation) is the biggest beneficiary, becoming something that’s deeply compelling – emotionally, morally, and personally.
Add to that Kathy Bates who delivers the tear-jerking gut punch. As Richard’s mother, her overwhelming grief becomes genuinely palpable as her son’s reputation (and life) is systematically destroyed. The burden is all there, on her and pouring out of her, convulsively expressed through her anguish. It’s through Bates’ that we feel the full weight of the toll, and it is absolutely heartbreaking.
If only Eastwood respected his audience more, trusting them to navigate nuance rather than throwing them red meat. More vitality in the craft would’ve been welcome, too.
Nevertheless, the core truth of the injustice Jewell suffered comes through. It’s enough to make you go home and immediately distrust any news channel that you turn to, even the ones you may trust, or to be suspicious of reporters and pundits esteemed for their objectivity.
Some may fault the film for fostering those suspicions at a time when the media is under a “Fake News” assault but, the Scruggs smear aside, now is exactly the time to take an honest inventory of what news standards we accept and the possibly spurious information we spread, especially in the age of social media.
If we allow ourselves to take a humble posture rather than a defensive one, Richard Jewell’s story can help us to take stock of where we’re at and how we got here, and then guide the necessary conversation about how we need to move forward.