Film Review – Richard Jewell
Director Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell (2019) is often times a frustrating watch. Not only because it depicts yet another instance of injustice being inflicted on an innocent person, but in the way Eastwood and his production deconstruct the characters into one dimensional participants. Eastwood’s style has never been overtly flashy, and that restrained approach can work well in the right circumstances – see Mystic River (2003) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). But here we have a true story bogged down by characters that don’t feel like flesh and blood people, but archetypes assigned to play specific roles.
In the center is the title character, played convincingly well by Paul Walter Hauser. The real Richard Jewell was a security guard who became famous when he discovered the pipe bomb in Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Jewell’s quick action helped save thousands of lives that night (unfortunately the bomb did go off, directly killing one person and injuring over a hundred others). But his heroics were quickly overshadowed when the FBI (wanting to resolve the case quickly) and the media (hungry to jump on a hot story) fingered Jewell as the prime suspect in the attack.
Many of you may remember this case. I was twelve years old and can still distinctly recall the news broadcasts covering it. What eventually happened with the investigation and with Jewell has been well documented; a quick internet search can supply the details. But the draw is in how ruthless the FBI and media went after Jewell. He went from being labeled a hero to a monster in the blink of an eye, completely upturning his entire life and causing enormous stress for himself and his mother (Kathy Bates). In fact, the only person that seemed to be on his side was his lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).
Richard Jewell is a compelling story, but Eastwood’s direction and Billy Ray’s screenplay make it terribly difficult to believe in it. Nearly every character involved in this is either incompetent, a stereotype, or just plain stupid. This includes Jewell himself. Despite the abundant warnings from Watson, Jewell can’t help but put his foot in his mouth, making him look even more suspicious. His blind faith in law enforcement causes him to openly talk to the FBI without Watson being there, not aware that his words can be used against him. When the FBI raids his home, Jewell willingly offers to help search for evidence. When he gets called in for interrogation, he makes it his purpose to point out that he isn’t gay. He defends the FBI even when it becomes clear that he is their prime suspect. His aloofness to what’s happening around him makes one want to pull their hair out. When his moment of defiance finally shows up, it comes off feeling false.
But the Jewell character isn’t the only problem. We also have the incompetence of the investigation lead by FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). Shaw becomes increasingly obsessed with catching Jewell, even though there is no reason to back up that motivation. Shaw constantly talks about how Jewell “fits the criminal profile” but ignores the obvious evidence that proves his innocence. When the facts contradict his theories Shaw simply disregards it and continues forward. Given that this is based on a real case, the incompetence of the authorities might actually be the point. But there’s nothing given within the film to make us feel like Jewell was actually at risk of being convicted. It’s like the audience has the knowledge before the characters do and we’re just simply waiting for them to catch up.
There’s also the issue with journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who was the first to report the FBI’s interest in Jewell, sparking the media frenzy that followed. I suppose that Scruggs was meant to be the tough talking reporter who will stop at nothing to get to the truth. Sadly, her portrayal plays more to the stereotype of a woman using her sexual prowess to gain insider knowledge. We learn nothing else about her – we don’t know why she has such a keen interest in Jewell other than making headlines or drawing readers. And outside of a few close up shots of her distraught face, nothing is revealed of her reaction once the case against Jewell started to fall apart. Did she do anything to rectify the mistake? Did her paper issue a retraction or an apology? Or did they simply move on to the next hot topic to leech on?
I believe there is a good movie to be made about Jewell and the events that took place at Centennial Park. I don’t believe this is it. It recounts a true story but leaves out the nuance. It paints with broad strokes without going back over with a fine tipped brush. Watching this was like reading the first paragraph of a news report: we learn the big points but miss out on all the details.