December 10, 2019

Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell—based on a true story—is a well-made, well-acted picture about a clear act of injustice against an innocent man. So why does it leave such a sour aftertaste? Eastwood’s subject, the Richard Jewell of the title, is the security guard who was wrongly suspected of having planted the bomb that killed one person and injured more than 100 others in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park during a celebratory concert in 1996; in reality, Jewell’s actions at the time of the bombing saved lives. Railroaded by the FBI and battered by a newspaper story that perhaps shouldn’t have run, Jewell was a victim of circumstance, of bad judgment, of careless decisions made by law enforcement. Jewell’s story has everything going for it in the righteousness department, and Eastwood—working from a script by Billy Ray, adapted from a magazine article by Marie Brenner—takes great care in embroidering the elaborate backdrop around this wronged man’s innocence. But one significant choice casts doubt on his motives.

Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a zealously upstanding citizen with dreams of someday working in law enforcement. He’s portly and friendly, though when he speaks his phrasing is dotted with shifty little pauses—you can tell people are slightly creeped out by him, yet there’s no reason not to give him the benefit of the doubt. After he loses his job as a college security guard for being too aggressive in policing the students—he’s also been known to act out his lawman fantasy by pulling over speeding motorists on the nearby highway—he’s delighted to land a job as a guard during Atlanta’s Summer Olympics. On duty during a celebratory concert in the park, Jewell is the first to spot the suspicious-looking backpack stowed under a park bench; he reports it in time to give authorities a chance to begin clearing the area, potentially saving dozens, if not hundreds, of lives. For a few days, he’s a hero, making appearances on the national news and even being approached to write a book. Then the FBI turns its attention on him as a suspect. One agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), leaks that information to ball-busting Atlanta Journal-Constitution police reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde): In the movie, Scruggs cuddles up to Shaw in a dimly lit bar, purring an obvious come-on in his ear, her hands wandering toward places the camera can’t see. It’s strongly suggested that she extracts the information from him by offering to sleep with him and then acting on it.

Scruggs writes a sensationalistic story that names Jewell—the type of guy often referred to as a loner, and one who lives with his mother (Kathy Bates)—as a suspect. He’s never charged with the crime, but FBI agents—chief among them the swaggering, calculating Shaw—descend upon him, baiting him with leading questions and dubious interrogation methods. Jewell comes off as naïve and detrimentally earnest, but an acquaintance from an old job steps in to help: Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a not-such-a-hotshot attorney, sees how Jewell is being drowned by the authorities and the press, his rights being violated right and left.

It takes Bryant months to clear Jewell’s name. He’s surprised along the way by little things he doesn’t know about his client, like the fact that Jewell owns a mini-sporting-good’s shop worth of guns and keeps a decommissioned hand grenade as a paperweight. In the meantime, the Feds hound Jewell and his mother, and Scruggs digs in deeper with a story that was built on slender threads to begin with. (Ultimately, Eric Rudolph was charged with the bombing and convicted. Jewell, who died in 2007, brought libel suits against the A.J.C. and other papers that ran similar stories about the false accusations.)

As a craftsperson, Eastwood brings the goods to Richard Jewell. The sequence between the moment Jewell spots the lumpy, half-obscured backpack and the instant the bomb goes off, a blast of smoke and chaos, is artfully tense, unnerving in its specificity. As Jewell, Hauser has the right mix of vulnerability and pedantic officiousness; his face has a bland sweetness to it—you can see why he clings to dreams of enforcing law and order, fueled in equal measure by his own tender ego and the genuine desire to help.

But if Eastwood is careful in mapping the complexity of Jewell’s case—and the certainty of his innocence—he’s so reckless in other areas that you wonder what he’s thinking. Eastwood has expressed politically conservative leanings—he has identified himself as a Libertarian—but it’s a fool’s errand to pin stark political motives on every film he makes. He’s never as obvious as his detractors would like him to be, though that’s not to say his ideas don’t leak through: He’s attracted to stories in which the underdog triumphs (Million Dollar Baby), as well as to fables of pro-America heroism (American Sniper) and just plain-doing-the-right-thing heroism (The 15:17 to Paris). His movies are blunt but often ideologically slippery.

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Here, Eastwood shows the utmost compassion for Richard Jewell, the wrongfully accused little guy. But his generosity stops there, and he shows particular vitriol and distaste for Scruggs. As Wilde plays her, she’s a brazen smarty, a seasoned pro who zips from here to there, wherever the sirens take her. Her blouse may be unbuttoned a little too low, her skirt is perhaps a bit too short, but it’s all part of the game, and of her personal style. In an early scene, she flirts openly with Shaw; they’re pals, sort of, and it’s no one’s business if there’s ever been anything extracurricular between them.

But Eastwood amps up the tawdriness in the sequence where she snuggles up to Shaw at the bar, stroking him for information. Wilde is a marvelous actor, but she can’t survive the conception of this role. You can certainly make the case that Scruggs ran with the Richard Jewell story too soon, or used poor judgment in revealing his name. But all Eastwood can see is the vixen journo who’ll do anything for a story. Hamm’s Tom Shaw is a composite character, a work of fiction drawn from blended facts. But Scruggs—who died in 2001—was a real person. It’s telling that Eastwood makes her into the bigger cartoon, when she’s no longer here to defend herself.

Richard Jewell is one of those expertly crafted pictures that reminded me how little I care for craftsmanship when a filmmaker’s ugliest impulses are thrumming in the background. For all its attributes, this isn’t a nuanced portrait of a wrongly accused man. It’s a squinty scowl aimed at a bunch of things plenty of Americans have already decided they adamantly do not like. The FBI? Untrustworthy to the core. The government? Too intrusive by half. Journalists? It’s all fake news! Does Eastwood really believe that to raise up the little guy, you’ve got to destroy the value of everything else? It’s hard to know. But sometimes the audience you’re pandering to can overshadow what you’re actually trying to say.

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