Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Movie Review: Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell **** / *****
Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Billy Ray based on the magazine article by Marie Brenner.
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell), Sam Rockwell (Watson Bryant), Olivia Wilde (Kathy Scruggs), Jon Hamm (Tom Shaw), Kathy Bates (Bobi Jewell), Nina Arianda (Nadya), Ian Gomez (Agent Dan Bennet), Niko Nicotera (Dave Dutchess), Mike Pniewski (Brandon Hamm), Dylan Kussman (Bruce Hughes), David Shae (Ron Martz), Charles Green (Dr. W. Ray Cleere), Billy Slaughter (Tim Barker), Alex Collins (Max Green), Dani Deetté (APD Officer Kacie Boebel), Matthew Atchley (FBI Agent Doug Wall), Olaolu Winfunke (Eli Gradestone).
It is a shame that almost all the talk around Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell film has centered around one character – Kathy Scruggs – and not just that one character, but one scene involving that character. Scruggs was a real reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution – the newspaper that rushed to publish that Jewell was the suspect in the Centennial Park Bombing during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, which kicked off a process that nearly destroyed his life, despite the fact that he was completely innocent. The FBI and the Media had Jewell in their crosshairs, and wouldn’t let him out – a tragedy considering that Jewell’s action saved lives that night, and whatever else you can say about him, that wasn’t right. The scene in question involves how Scruggs got Jewell’s name in the first place – in the film, it is outright stated that she sleeps with the FBI Agent in Charge, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) – a fictional amalgamation of a character – to get the information. In reality, we don’t know what Scruggs sources were, or how she got the information – like any good reporter, she wouldn’t reveal them, but there is absolutely no evidence, and before the movie no speculation, then Scruggs slept with anyone to get the information. The fact that Eastwood’ film depicts it as such is a slap in the face to Scruggs – who died years ago – and is a continuation of a harmful, and inaccurate, stereotype about female reporters sleeping with sources to get information. It shouldn’t have happened. And not only that, it was wholly, completely unnecessary. There is more than enough real, factual information about the sins of the FBI and the Media involved to paint them as the bad actors they were in this case, without adding this unnecessary smear. Olivia Wilde’s wild eyed performance as Scruggs throughout the film doesn’t help much either. It’s a black mark on the film – and on what had been a great year for Wilde, with her terrific performance in A Vigilante and her directorial debut Booksmart.
It's a shame because of all of that, but it’s also a shame because so much of the rest of Richard Jewell is a stellar movie – one of Eastwood’s best late period films. You can question the politics of it all – why Eastwood has decided to tell this story, where the media and the FBI are the bad guys, in an era where Donald Trump seems to believe that to be true, but Jewell’s case is a real one – and is about the dangers of jumping to conclusions when there are no facts. Of course Richard Jewell, the man who found the bomb needed to be investigated. But they didn’t need to drag him through the mud while doing so. And they did it because he was fat, seemed kind of slow, and lived with his mother. Because he had had a failed law enforcement career, and delusions of grandeur about his power and what he could do. The film is about Jewell’s slow dawning realization that no matter how much he loves these institutions; they will never love him back.
Jewell is played by Paul Walter Hauser, the standout supporting actor from I, Tonya a few years ago (who was also quite good in BlackKklansman last year). It is perfect casting, and Hauser makes the most of his first lead role in a film. He plays Jewell as a man who really does believe in law and order – believes in the police, in law enforcement, and enforcing the law as written. When he was a college rent-a-cop, he went too far in enforcing the rules, and got fired. It wasn’t the first time he got let go from a police job because he was overly enthusiastic. He is, in short, the kind of guy you don’t want to be a police officer. This is how he ends up working security during the Olympics – which is where he finds the bomb. The opening sequence, with the sequence of events leading up to the explosion is masterfully directed by Eastwood – slowly building the tension to what we know, but the people in the crowd do not know, is coming. All the acts of domestic terrorism (mass shootings included) in the decades since then has just made the sequence all the more terrifying.
From the time Jewell becomes a suspect, he doesn’t seem to fully understand what is happening to him. Luckily, he hires a lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, excellent in ways that aren’t immediately obvious) who protects him as much as he can. The problem is that Jewell is a believer in these institutions and wants to help them. But while Jewell has an inflated sense of his own importance – and seems somewhat delusional – he isn’t stupid. He is angry, but he doesn’t want to show it. His mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates) doesn’t understand what is happening – and her life is being ruined as well, despite how supportive she is. Meanwhile, the FBI and the Media keeps acting as if Jewell is guilty, and they have him dead to rights – despite some very obvious facts that don’t add up, and no evidence of any kind.
Basically, everything that doesn’t involved Kathy Scruggs is top notch Clint Eastwood. His ideas of heroism, of good and evil, have always been more complex than he is given credit for. The film doesn’t quite hit the heights of his best late period film – American Sniper (a prime example of a film that is more complex than many people, on both sides, think it is). It is another complex, moral look at heroism in America – the limits of our institutions, and the danger of believing in them too much. When Donald Trump says Fake News, he is undermining everything that it means to be American – but sometimes, there is fake news, and it isn’t going to go away without looking at it.

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