Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde
Clint Eastwood is back with another film about a bruised and battered American hero, and an interesting dichotomy has been lately starting to emerge. When the multi-hyphenate (actor-director-producer-composer) casts himself in the lead, he has to grapple with late-career realities, and ends up being sentimental and gentle on himself (2018’s The Mule, 2012’s Trouble with the Curve, 2008’s Gran Torino). But when he casts other people in his movie, he somehow ends up being the Angry Old Man, waving his walking stick at the inequities oppressing honorable men (2018’s The 15:17 to Paris, 2016’s Sully, 2014’s American Sniper). It’s almost as if he’s using actors like Tom Hanks and Bradley Cooper as ciphers to rail at the larger forces endangering his heroes. And in his latest, Richard Jewell, that has become problematic.
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Based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” written by Marie Brenner, the movie follows the title character (I, Tonya breakout Paul Walter Hauser) as he drifts from mail-delivery office drone in a law firm, somewhat creepily stocking Snickers bars in up-and-coming lawyer Watson Bryant’s (Sam Rockwell) drawer, to overzealous campus security guard, busting entitled frat boys for smoking weed in their dorm rooms. As the film tells it, Jewell has always had a deeply bred respect for authority and a burning desire to enforce it, harboring a fond dream of becoming a police officer. Richard Jewell is just a good ol’ boy who’s devoted to his momma Bobi (the Oscar-nominated Kathy Bates), but somehow these laudable qualities will be used against him.
That moment comes during the 1996 bombing of Centennial Park in Atlanta, at the height of the Summer Olympics. Jewell spots a suspiciously unattended backpack, and his quick action resulted in the victim count being much lower. But running low on leads, the FBI, led by the agent on-site Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), soon focuses on Jewell as the prime suspect because he supposedly fits the profile of a disgruntled bomber. Soon, ambitious Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) breaks the story of the FBI’s interest without vetting her lead, and poor Richard Jewell’s life is plunged into disarray.
The film’s disdain for its two Big Bads—the FBI and the media—is so obvious, it’s not even coded. Every interaction Jewell has with investigators, whether they’re trying to manipulate him into a fake confession or ransacking his house, is designed to elicit maximum anger. Let’s not even get into the ramifications of a mass-marketed movie helmed by a high-profile director being released at a time when a despicable White House occupant is currently leading the charge in besmirching the reputations of these very institutions for his personal gain. We won’t even discuss the fact that if there were such a thing as imperiled white men, they usually get their day in court (Jewell eventually got huge settlements from news outlets like CNN and NBC News, a fact the now-obligatory footnote at the end of true-life movies conveniently does not spell out). Meanwhile, actual people of color are getting harassed or killed by law enforcement with often no succor from the American justice system.
It may be unfair to pillory a film for unaddressed larger-context issues, but it is only just to point out the problematic thing it actually does: tarnish its own case by flinging mud at the complicated reporter at the center of its plot. Brenner never so much as implied in her article that Scruggs slept with law enforcement to obtain her scoop, but the film makes that unfounded accusation. Meanwhile, Billy Ray’s water-thin script portrays Scruggs as a woman who brazenly wields her looks as an advantage, cupping her breasts in the middle of the newsroom while declaring her TV-ready assets. It’s a shocking smear of misogyny that condemns the film in the same way it castigates its villains.
Which is a shame, because Richard Jewell is brimming with sterling performances. Bates is predictably solid as Jewell’s suffering mother, Rockwell is colorful as Jewell’s khaki shorts-clad crusading lawyer. (One of many employed by Jewell, by the way, but where’s the inspiration in a hero story without an outnumbered army?) And Paul Walter Hauser is a revelation: Infusing his embattled hero with vulnerability, he traces Jewell’s Kafkaesque arc with such sincerity you almost want to pat his red, rotund cheeks and give him a hug. The actors are all ultimately rendered a disservice by Eastwood, who refuses to extend the understanding and dimensionality he extends to his hero to anyone else. Ironically, he becomes what he accuses Jewell’s oppressors to be: a shameless hack.