As befits a filmmaker who has always been more complicated than either his fans or his detractors want to admit, “Richard Jewell” is a rich and nuanced work with a grotesque smear at its core. Which is ironic, given that Clint Eastwood’s new movie — the latest in a career that, years from now, will be properly understood as mythic — is about a man who himself is slandered and nearly ruined. That man’s crime? Being a hero but failing to look like one.
Eastwood has spent his ninth decade obsessing about heroes — where they come from, what stresses they face, whether heroism is even worth it. His most notorious work of the past decade, “American Sniper” (2014), was an entry in a lonely genre — the conservative antiwar movie — that examined the psychic fractures of sanctioned murder until real-world events forced a mawkish rewrite of the ending. “Sully” (2016) wondered why professionalism gets mistaken for heroism, and “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) — a film misunderstood by many, including me — marvels at the ways great deeds can rise from banality.
“Richard Jewell” looks through a different facet of the prism: What happens if it’s too hard to process a hero as a hero? What if it’s easier for individuals and institutions to just label him a villain? On July 27, 1996, a pipe bomb filled with masonry nails went off during a late-night concert in Centennial Olympic Park, the “town square” of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Two people died, 111 were injured, and the carnage might have been worse had a security guard named Richard Jewell not spotted the suspicious backpack and, with others, started clearing the area.
Desperate to find a suspect, the FBI decided Jewell fit the profile of an attention-seeking “lone wolf,” and when that news got leaked to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the security guard’s life descended into a relentless media hell. He was never charged and by October he was formally cleared, with US Attorney General Janet Reno subsequently offering a public apology. In 2003, a domestic terrorist named Eric Rudolph confessed to this and other bombings and is serving four life sentences in prison. Richard Jewell died from complications of diabetes, in 2007.
As written by Billy Ray (who based his script on a 1997 Vanity Fair article) and directed by Eastwood, “Richard Jewell” initially wants us to be unsure about Jewell as well. A shambling big guy, overweight and over-polite, he lives at home with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), and he hero-worships law-enforcement professionals with a veneration that borders on the obsequious. He’s been bounced from jobs as a cop and a rent-a-cop. He can invade other people’s personal space. He’s just a little creepy, and Eastwood has cannily cast the role with Paul Walter Hauser, a character actor who usually plays backwoods cretins and middle-American dolts. (He was an idiot cousin in “Nebraska,” a Klansman in “BlacKkKlansman,” and the friend with all the bad ideas in “I, Tonya.”)
Hauser, who’s excellent, uses his bulk and heavy-lidded eyes to keep the character a cipher; Eastwood knows we’re judging Jewell as much as the real cops who mock this naïve wannabe behind his back. So when the FBI agent (Jon Hamm) overseeing the case slots the security guard into a known “profile,” our loyalties are still somewhat mixed. It’s only when the railroading begins, and Jewell hires a sly fox of a lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, who else?) that “Richard Jewell” begins to articulate its case. Which is that when headline writers and news anchors call someone a “hero” (which they did with Jewell), that hero had better live up to the billing — had better look like, I dunno, Clint Eastwood — or we won’t be happy with the story. And we’ll invent a different story, one that fits what we want to see, regardless of whether it’s true.
There’s a bit of dark comedy to the conversations between the lawyer and his client, Bryant advising Jewell to clam up around the feds and Jewell helplessly sucking up to them because “I’m in law enforcement, too.” But just as the audience is about to throw in the towel on the guy, Hauser gets a remarkable scene in which the anger and sadness of a fat man who knows no one takes him seriously just pours out of Jewell. Instead of seeing him as an oddity, we understand him as a man.
Which by necessity brings up the way Eastwood, Ray, and “Richard Jewell” see women. The film offers two examples of the species. Jewell’s mother is a gentle soul whose defenses crumble over the course of the film; Bates gives the character heartbreaking detail and depth. Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a reporter for the Journal-Constitution, is presented as a media harpy not above using sex to get a scoop. She’s the movie’s designated bitch.
There was a real Kathy Scruggs. She died in 2001, at 43. A lot of people who worked with her have praised her as a dedicated, hard-nosed, ethical journalist. None of them, nor anybody at her newspaper, were contacted by the filmmakers. That includes Ron Martz, who co-wrote the paper’s coverage of Jewell with Scruggs but who in this telling is a bulldozed minor figure played by David Shae. The FBI agent played by Hamm is a composite figure. Rockwell’s character was only one of several attorneys working on Jewell’s behalf. Scruggs, who’s not alive to defend herself, is portrayed under her real name as an evil lady journalist whore.
This is not right. This is an insult to all reporters, male and especially female, and it’s a shoddy, sexist cultural cliché, to boot. Even worse, in 2019 it’s a dangerous cliché, predicated on lazy assumptions, unexamined biases, and judgments based on a person’s gender and physical appearance.
You’d think the people who made “Richard Jewell” would be the first to understand this.
The real Jewell sued the Journal-Constitution, NBC, the New York Post, and Piedmont College (his former employer); all but the first case resulted in monetary settlements. The Georgia Supreme Court found that the newspaper’s articles “in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published.”
Finding the truth of things gets messy. Is that fair to Jewell or any other innocent at the center of a news maelstrom? Of course not. Did FBI agents, journalists, and everyone gossiping around the office water cooler leap to conclusions based on what Jewell appeared to be — on how far he seemed from the model of a modern American hero? Almost certainly. When Eastwood and company are probing such questions, “Richard Jewell” is complicated and daringly bleak — Eastwood’s update of Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” (1956), itself among the Master’s darkest movies.
When it’s looking elsewhere, the film’s a downright shame.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Billy Ray. Starring Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 129 minutes. R (language, some sexual references, brief bloody images)