Richard Jewell movie review: innocent man, guilty movie

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Richard Jewell red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Cluelessly simplistic rendering of a 1990s media injustice ignores all the context in which it happened and demonizes the one journalist who acted professionally. Fails even as a conservative screed.
I’m “biast” (pro): up for a good bash at modern mainstream journalism
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of Clint Eastwood of late
I have read the source article (but not the book) (and I like it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Once upon a time, being an American right-winger meant unconditional support for law enforcement. There was no overreach cops could engage in in the pursuit of justice; there was no injustice cops could commit in the name of law and order. Cops could do no wrong. Does that cease to be the case when the innocent person fingered and investigated by cops is a white man? Or — oh, wait a second now — is the bad ol’ FBI suddenly fair game for “conservatives” now that Donald Trump doesn’t like the agency and throws regular public tantrums directed at them?

Once upon a time, Clint Eastwood, a notoriously outspoken conservative in supposedly liberal Hollywood, had no problem at all with cops who employed their own unconventional extralegal brand of law enforcement (see: all those Dirty Harry movies). Today, in Richard Jewell, he really doesn’t like the FBI, even though the filmmaker doesn’t even suggest that the agency did anything more than act in the sort of aggressive way that conservative philosophy generally condones as perfectly acceptable, particularly in response to an act of terrorism.

Richard Jewell Jon Hamm
“Wait. How did I, an aggressive yet competent member of law enforcement, end up the bad guy in a conservative movie?”

Bizarrely, Eastwood (The Mule, The 15:17 to Paris) and screenwriter Billy Ray (Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man) don’t seem to have any interest whatsoever in depicting security guard Richard Jewell as anything other than a completely reasonable suspect for the FBI to home in on after a bomb is detonated in the Olympic Park in Atlanta in the summer of 1996, killing two people and injuring many more. Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser: Late Night, I, Tonya) comes across as a simpleton with a fixation on police work, a man who has failed in a career in law enforcement, a wannabe hanger-on and an object of ridicule to real cops. As a university rent-a-cop in the years before the Atlanta bombing — cheerfully shown here — he constantly abuses the small amount of authority he has and feels put upon for being reprimanded for it. We, the audience, may see that Jewell does nothing at all criminal, and we may know that he had absolutely nothing to do with the bombing — in fact, he saved many lives by raising the alarm and evacuating people from the area — but there’s also not a single thing here to counter the notion that he looked legitimately suspicious to the FBI and that they investigated him in good faith. Without any alteration whatsoever, Jon Hamm’s (Bad Times at the El Royale, Beirut) lead investigating FBI agent could be the hero here, though he is shoehorned into a villain slot. And yet the man the movie wants to champion is a lazily drawn, stereotypical Hollywood doofus.

Even given all that, it’s difficult to get past the feeling that Eastwood, with a style that is even more cluelessly simplistic than his other work of late, is pointlessly striving to exonerate a man who *checks notes* was exonerated by the FBI almost immediately after they concluded that he was not involved in the bombing… again, as plainly and clearly depicted here. Jewell was never charged, never even arrested. He was treated appallingly by the press, Eastwood’s other Big Baddie. There’s an undertone of railing at the “Fake News” in Richard Jewell, though that hardly tracks, either: When the newspaper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution names Jewell as the FBI’s main suspect, igniting a media shitstorm that engulfs Jewell and his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates: On the Basis of Sex, Bad Santa 2), with whom he lives, there’s nothing fake about it: it’s true.

Richard Jewell Kathy Bates
“Assembled members of the world media, I am here to tell you that my large adult son Richard is a good boy.”

The relevant bit of the Richard Jewell story — the explosion of media interest that coalesced around a man who turned out to be wholly innocent — is but a sideshow in Richard Jewell, one that ignores all the context in which it happens. There’s zero appreciation for how this was the beginning of the 24/7 news cycle and cable news that was coming to rely more on sensational “breaking news” rather than in-depth, carefully reported journalism. (The infamous OJ Simpson white-Bronco chase, arguably the instigating event for this new kind of “urgent” live TV, occurred only two years before this.) There absolutely is criticism of the media to be examined here, but Richard Jewell isn’t up to the task.

Instead, it cheaply invents an AJC reporter (Olivia Wilde: Love the Coopers, The Lazarus Effect) who trades sex with Hamm’s FBI agent, with the implication that this is her usual modus operandi, in exchange for Jewell’s name as their suspect. This is an appalling slander on the real journalist who broke the story, Kathy Scruggs — the film even uses that name, while Hamm’s character appears to be a composite with an invented name — a woman who is no longer around to defend herself. (She died in 2001.) The film also implies that she didn’t even write her own article but handed over that chore to a male reporter. Instead of doing the tougher job of looking at the breakdown of the entire media ecosystem in the late 1990s, Richard Jewell concocts sexist bullshit that demonizes the one journalist in this whole debacle who acted most professionally.

Richard Jewell Sam Rockwell Paul Walter Hauser
“Congrats, 1990s newspaper folks, for prompting the invention of the term ‘fake news’ 20 years early.”

The February 1997 Vanity Fair article that is partly the basis for Ray’s script — “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” by Marie Brenner — touches on some of the problems of the management philosophy at AJC, in the tone and approach to its journalism, that contributed to the terrible situation that Jewell found himself in the middle of. The article also does a good job of conveying how under siege Jewell and his mother felt at the time from not only the hounding of reporters outside their home but the pile-on by all media, including talk shows and late-night comics. That’s the true injustice of this tale, and this movie skims right past it. (The other source material is the book The Suspect, by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen.)

Ironically, Wilde’s performance is one of the highlights of this otherwise intensely bland and directionless movie; even Sam Rockwell (Poltergeist, Laggies) as Jewell’s lawyer is pretty muted, though he and Wilde do briefly spar entertainingly. They are but a momentary respite, however from a story too poorly structured and too seemingly unaware of its own core to any sort of point at all. Richard Jewell fails even as a conservative screed… and that’s a pretty low bar.

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