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Film Review: “Richard Jewell” Missteps Its Way to a Corrective

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 12th, 2019

Film poster: “Richard Jewell”

Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.

We do not need this movie right now. Given the unprecedented attacks – from the highest office in the land – on both the free press and the FBI, a film that excoriates both is sure to add greasy fuel to an already raging fire. Director Clint Eastwood (Sully) trains his more than capable lens on a true-life tale with the laudable mission of righting a historical wrong (albeit one that had already long since been righted), yet in pursuing his goal ends up committing the same sins he attacks. The irony is rich in Richard Jewell, though without intention. It’s highly watchable throughout, however, and filled with mostly solid performances, both of which facts mean it will be seen by many and, most likely, cause irreparable harm. Thanks, Clint!

The titular character is the eponymous real-life Atlanta security guard who, at the 1996 Olympics, discovered a backpack full of explosives and then alerted the police and helped clear people from the park where it was found. The bomb exploded, injuring many, some severely, and one woman died, but far worse would have happened had the backpack remained unnoticed. While at first declared a hero, Jewell was soon considered the primary suspect, as he ostensibly fit the FBI’s profile of the kind of man who would do such a thing: he had been fired from jobs as both a police officer and a university cop (he was prone to overstepping his authority) and had illusions of mild grandeur. To top it off, he lived with his mother and had few friends. Law enforcement, as the movie makes clear, always takes a hard look at the person who finds a bomb, just to rule them out, but when this fact was leaked to the press, Jewell’s life quickly became a living hell.

What works well in the film is how Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) refuse to make a Jewell a completely innocent martyr, pointing out how his behavior prior to 1996 could well have raised alarms in those who knew him. They are also right to point out the many ways the press (initially fed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but then developing a national force of its own) went after sensationalism over facts. The FBI made blunders, too, forcing facts to fit a profile, rather than using the profile to illuminate the facts. No one is well served when the wrong culprit is apprehended – the real bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, was finally caught in 2003 – and it is never good when minds are made up early in an investigation. Richard Jewell illuminates all these issues in a fairly compelling way.

Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in RICHARD JEWELL ©Warner Bros.

But where it strays from the record, doing to one of the other characters what it claims she did to Jewell, is in its portrayal of the AJC’s Kathy Scruggs, who first broke the story that the hero was a suspect. As many articles (here’s just one) have pointed out in recent days, there is no evidence that Scruggs, a dedicated journalist, ever crossed ethical lines by sleeping with a source, which she does here with an FBI agent (a composite of actual agents on the ground) played by Jon Hamm (Lucy in the Sky). Incarnated by OIivia Wilde (Life Itself) as an unscrupulous, arrogant, ends-justify-the-means go-getter, it’s Scruggs, along with Hamm’s fictional character, who shoulders the blame for what happens to Jewell. How convenient: the FBI and the media, literally in bed together, the stuff of conservative nightmares …

Beyond this unfortunate fabrication, the movie further suffers from oversimplification of the issues, preferring to offer its own brand of good/bad as time goes on, eschewing the nuance of its early scenes. But the actors are solid, with Paul Walter Hauser (Late Night) doing fine work in the title role, and Kathy Bates (Krystal) and Sam Rockwell (Jojo Rabbit) lending excellent support as Jewell’s mother and lawyer, respectively. If Hamm and Wilde play their parts too broadly, it suits their characterizations.

In the real world, Jewell was not only exonerated but also settled lawsuits (in his favor) he had brought against many of the outlets that portrayed him as the bomber (the AJCnever settled, and eventually won its case in 2011). Still, he died in 2007, from diabetes-related problems that were perhaps (the film hints) exacerbated by the stress of his experience in the negative spotlight. Scruggs is also dead (of a drug overdose in 2001), and she, too, apparently suffered for her role in the Atlanta mess, purportedly bearing the guilt and shame of how she had contributed to the persecution of Jewell. At least Jewell lived to see his name cleared (though that is no excuse for what he went through), and enjoyed some modicum of fame. Who will mourn for Scruggs after watching this film? No one, and that’s a travesty. Despite its strengths, then, this Richard Jewell does not quite deserve the pedestal it seeks.

Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in RICHARD JEWELL ©Warner Bros.
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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