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Review: Richard Jewell (2019)

Richard Jewell (2019)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Premise: Based on true events. A low level security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) discovers a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. In the aftermath, the FBI investigates the guard as a suspect and press coverage turns his life upside down.

What Works: Clint Eastwood’s recent films like American Sniper, Sully, and The 15:17 to Paris have dramatized the exploits of contemporary American heroes. Eastwood’s latest installment in this cycle is Richard Jewell, the true story of a security guard who saved many people’s lives at the 1996 Summer Olympics when he discovered a bomb and evacuated the blast area. The film covers the night of the bombing but the majority of this story takes place during the aftermath in which the FBI and the press falsely accused Jewell of masterminding the bombing to make himself a hero. Among the impressive aspects of this story is the way in which the filmmakers establish credibility. That’s first done through the characterization of Jewell himself. Jewell’s introduction is not flattering; he comes across as a Paul Blart-type who was fired from a college security job for overzealously enforcing the rules. But Jewell is also depicted as being fundamentally good at his job. He noticed details and asked the right questions and followed procedure and those behaviors saved lives. The filmmakers also make the actions of the press and the FBI credible by establishing the history of would-be heroes who manufacture crises for their own self-aggrandizement, a profile that fit Jewell suspiciously well. But the movie is also infuriating because it shows how the press and law enforcement got caught up in confirmation bias and wrongly smeared Jewell as a villain. The movie captures the stress of living in a fishbowl of suspicion and press attention and it is a startlingly powerful depiction of the power of the state and the media to railroad a citizen’s life. The cast of Richard Jewell is terrific, starting with Paul Walter Hauser in the title role. Hauser plays Jewell as a man of integrity who was naïve but not stupid and his disillusionment with law enforcement is heartbreaking. Hauser is paired with Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother and Sam Rockwell as his attorney Watson Bryant. The interactions between Hauser and Rockwell manage a balance of drama and comedy and they are many of the movie’s best scenes.

What Doesn’t: There is one troubling aspect of Richard Jewell and that is the depiction of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story about the FBI’s investigation of Jewell and, as depicted in the film, drove the narrative that turned Jewell’s life upside down. Olivia Wilde’s performance is really broad and out of step with the tone of the movie. The film also depicts her trading sex for story tips although there is no proof the real Scruggs ever did that. There is one way of justifying this. Turnabout is fair play and Scruggs made a splash by spreading lies about Richard Jewell that destroyed his reputation and followed Jewell long after he was exonerated. The movie does the same to Scruggs but it comes across as a low blow because she is no longer alive to defend herself. 

Bottom Line: Richard Jewell is the best installment in Clint Eastwood’s cycle of hero stories. The film is a startling portrait of the fickle nature of public opinion and the power of the state and the media in our lives.

Episode: #782 (December 29, 2019)