Clint Eastwood’s latest film gives an eerie glimpse of what it’s like to be wrongfully accused. “Richard Jewell” explores the tragic chronicle of the late Atlanta security guard who, during the 1996 Olympics reported a suspicious bag containing pipe bombs that were under a bench that ended up killing one woman and injuring over 100 people. Jewell was originally gloated as a national hero that would soon made him a prime suspect that led to a media frenzy that shattered Jewell’s livelihood.
Written by Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass) and based on Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is an absorbing indictment on the spread of fake news, rush to judgments and governments abuse of power that is still relevant in power structures today.
“Richard Jewell” is very much a political film, but a very riveting and essential one. Like most filmmakers today, Eastwood’s most recent films are a reflection of his own right-leaning libertarian politics, “Sully” was a celebration of the individual at odds with endless bureaucratic red tape, “American Sniper” played a patriotic tribute to American war heroes while still exploring how trauma from war has on the psyche, and “Richard Jewell” is a reflection of how Eastwood sees the collusion between corporate media and the government.
What is odd though, is how Eric Robert Rudolph, the convicted Olympic Park Bomber domestic terrorist that terrorized the South’s abortion clinics and who was responsible for many other anti-gay-motivated attacks, isn’t focused on. This may not coincide and contradict Eastwood’s own political leanings. This is Eastwood’s own condemnation on the media frenzy that destroyed and almost killed Richard Jewell. Some believe the stress and anxiety of this media persecution led to Jewell’s early death in the mid-2000s.
Eastwood and Billy Ray, together, helm a very layered and opaque narrative that holds many ideas. Yet, it’s the characterization of Jewell that is held with great empathy and deep sincerity is where the film triumphs. Jewell, played to perfection by Paul Walter Hauser is a likable character that you cheer for. The film opens up as Jewell working as a college security guard that is teased by the campus students as a “rent-a-cop” that turns into a confrontation that gets him in trouble with the campus dean.
Years later, he is doing security guard work at the Atlanta Olympics. His work at securing a perimeter saves lives, and he shortly becomes a media darling and labeled a hero with Katie Couric on “The Today Show.” His heroism is short lived, after an FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) is ordered to investigate Jewell. Shaw ends up giving information to Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution who holds unethical methods in her reporting as she wants all the information she can get on Jewell’s investigation, even if he means luring Agent Shaw into bed as if she is a noir vixen. It is the one problematic stereotypical characterization that works more as a provocation that Eastwood and Ray take too far in their ideas. Scruggs is held with such blatant disdain and no restraint by Eastwood here, even having her mock Jewell about being overweight and living at home. (Note: There is no evidence that the real-life reporter slept with anyone involved in the investigation)
Jewell, indeed lives with his mother Barbara “Bobi” Jewell”–played brilliantly and effectively by Kathy Bates who delivers the best performance of the film–begins to feel his life collapse around him. A man who has always held deep respect for the law and law enforcement is now being interrogated by the FBI, and he is manipulated by the FBI into incriminating himself. While the investigation remains ongoing, the mainstream media proclaim that Jewell is indeed the bombing suspect. This leads Jewell, an innocent and wrongfully accused man in hiring defense attorney G. Watson Brown (Sam Rockwell), an acquaintance Jewell knew from one his previous security guard jobs that holds deep distrust and disdain towards the federal government. Rockwell delivers a first-rate performance that is forceful and confident which leads Jewell finding the courage to fight back and prove his innocence from the libel and slander.
Eastwood has always been a master in making complex films that find his characters trapped in a moral crises. Look at his early-mid 2000’s shattering masterpieces like “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” that showed Eastwood as a moral relativist that had his characters trapped in a moral conundrum that touched on many grey areas. With “Richard Jewell” Eastwood sees no nuance or debate for moral relativism, his main interest is in exploring the fundamental evils he believes that the power structures hold in the media and government. To Eastwood the media is out to make headlines for ratings that will attract more money, or to even a greater degree Eastwood may think there is a greater “deep state” conspiracy that conservatives often argue that the media is in bed with the government, and we literally see that in the film with the Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm’s character. Regardless of Eastwood’s ideological impulses that will certainly raise controversial debates and discussion, “Richard Jewell” remains an expertly crafted and compelling character drama that makes the most of its story, aided by strong performances and thought-provoking ideas across the board.