Eastwood's "Richard Jewell" reduces an epic tragedy to a plodding plot

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 12/13/19

It is more than coincidental that the politically conservative Clint Eastwood chose now to direct a film that pillories the FBI and mainstream news media. It’s worth observing that a movie in …

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Eastwood's "Richard Jewell" reduces an epic tragedy to a plodding plot

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Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser star in Clint Eastwood's "Richard Jewell."
Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser star in Clint Eastwood's "Richard Jewell."
Posted

It is more than coincidental that the politically conservative Clint Eastwood chose now to direct a film that pillories the FBI and mainstream news media. It’s worth observing that a movie in which a lawyer is a hero and law enforcement is a villain would have been anything but right-wing agitprop 20 years ago. Still, the motives of the artist should ideally remain separate from assessing the quality of the art.

Judged solely on its own merits, “Richard Jewell” suffers the same malady as many of Eastwood’s directorial efforts the past 20 years. Eastwood’s unadorned, if not outright languid filmmaking approach turns this real-life Kafkaesque story, which feels even more relevant today than when it happened over two decades ago, into a by-the-numbers recitation reminiscent of a History Channel dramatization.

For the uninitiated, Jewell (played terrifically by Paul Walter Hauser) is the security officer who discovers a backpack full of pipe bombs left in the middle of a crowded Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Jewell’s attentiveness sharply reduces the potential casualties when the bomb eventually explodes. But within days, he becomes a prime suspect for FBI investigators. When their focus on Jewell is leaked to the press, including Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), it ignites a public maelstrom that upends the innocent Jewell and his family’s lives for months, if not longer.

Jewell is introduced as a red-blooded American who still says “Yes Sir/Ma'am,” loves his mama, and holds his government in high regard. Mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) believes everything she hears on TV, especially from the dreamy Tom Brokaw. To its credit, the film tracks why law enforcement would and even should have investigated Jewell. A one-time mailroom clerk, his borderline obsession with becoming a law enforcement officer took some erratic turns, including being arrested for impersonating a police officer six years earlier and being fired from a college campus security job for arguing with his boss and treating underage drinking like a capital offense. He hasn’t paid his taxes in two years, keeps a small firearms arsenal in his bedroom, and naively gravitates to a media-generated limelight in the days after the bombing. He’s a thirty-something man-child who lives with his mother and has few friends, fitting the basic profile of a “lone bomber” looking to become a “false hero,” the same thing that happened during the 1984 LA Olympics when a policeman who “disarmed” a bomb at the airport was later convicted of planting it.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to argue that reporters who obtain newsworthy details about the target of a police inquiry after a deadly bombing on US soil should just sit on that information. In this context, Eastwood’s controversial depiction of the admittedly hard-charging, hard-drinking Scruggs (who died in 2001) trading sex with an FBI agent (played by Jon Hamm) for info about Jewell being a “person of interest” is even more egregious. There’s no known evidence to support the assertion that the real-life Scruggs so flagrantly breached her journalistic ethics, one that cynically plays into antiquated, discredited tropes about women journalists. The way Eastwood cuts the scene in question makes it even more infuriating: Scruggs extracts the tip after some cajoling and mild flirtation, but her invitation to take things further immediately follows and could have easily been edited out.

Separately, both the police and the press were doing their jobs. The true culprit against Jewell is the intersection between the two entities. It’s an alchemy that fosters a collective media feeding frenzy around an ultimately innocent man, and in turn FBI agents who feel increasingly under pressure to prolong the investigation and make a case against Jewell, despite the relevant evidence, for fear of having public egg on their faces. Ultimately, both the federal government and even Brokaw turn on Jewell.

Richard Jewell” is a sweeping story rich with thematic potential and primed for a cinematic treatment in league with Kafka, Hitchcock, or other celebrated “wrong man” films. Instead, Eastwood plods along, letting the story tell itself in a straightward, uninspired fashion. [It’s a narrative fumble reminiscent of Eastwood’s rank mishandling of the astounding premise in “Changeling.”] This simplistic style also makes Eastwood’s periodic attempts at grandstanding feel forced. When it’s time for Scruggs to get her comeuppance, Eastwood concocts a scene that puts Jewell and his loyal, stalwart attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) in the AJC press room, just so Bryant can climb his soapbox and dress down the suddenly chastened reporter. While Hauser is otherwise excellent, his Jewell spends too much time playing the part of a functional imbecile blinded by naive loyalty instead of a regular guy betrayed a system he believes in.

Indeed, the only time Eastwood exherents himself is when he’s shoehorning some broad political points that range from on-the-nose to overbroad. “Where I come from, when the government says someone’s guilty that’s how you know they’re innocent,” says Bryant’s Eastern European secretary. Later, Bryant debriefs Jewell about whether he’s a member of any infringe groups, like the NRA. “The NRA is a fringe group?”, Jewell responds with Gump-like bafflement.

The story of Richard Jewell is Faustian: a nondescript nobody aspiring for respect who is suddenly thrust in the role of acclaimed hero, then turned into a reviled villain just as fast by the very forces he revers. Yet it falls to Bates to infuse genuine emotion and a tad of complexity into the film, as her character evolves from doting mother to confused victim to emotional wreck to determined protector. She finds the film’s heartbeat. Eastwood’s storytelling barely registers a pulse.

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