Clint Eastwood's true-life drama Richard Jewell takes aims at big targets, and misses

click to enlarge This "true story" takes liberties that besmirch its real-life characters — ironic, don't ya think?
This "true story" takes liberties that besmirch its real-life characters — ironic, don't ya think?

Once upon a time, Clint Eastwood, a notoriously outspoken conservative in supposedly liberal Hollywood, had no problem at all with cops who employed their own unconventional extra-legal brand of law enforcement (see: Dirty Harry). Today, in Richard Jewell, he really doesn't like the FBI.

Bizarrely, Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray don't seem to have any interest whatsoever in depicting security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) as anything other than a completely reasonable suspect for the FBI to hone in on, after a bomb detonated in Atlanta's Olympic Park in the summer of 1996 killed two people and injured many more. Jewell here comes across as a simpleton with a fixation on police work, a man who has failed in a career in law enforcement, a wannabe hanger-on and an object of ridicule to real cops.

We, the audience, may see that Jewell does nothing at all criminal, and we may know that he had absolutely nothing to do with the bombing, but there's also not a single thing here to counter the notion that he looked legitimately suspicious to the FBI and that they investigated him in good faith. Jon Hamm's lead investigating FBI agent could be, without any alteration whatsoever, the hero here, though he is shoehorned into the villain slot. And yet the man the movie wants to champion is a lazily drawn, stereotypical Hollywood doofus.

Even given all that, it's difficult to get past the feeling that Eastwood, with a style that is even more cluelessly simplistic than his other work of late, is pointlessly striving to exonerate a man who was exonerated by the FBI almost immediately after they concluded that he was not involved in the bombing. Jewell was never charged, never even arrested. He was treated appallingly by the press, Eastwood's other Big Baddie. There's an undertone of railing at the "Fake News" in Richard Jewell, though that hardly tracks, either: When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution names Jewell as the FBI's main suspect and ignites a media shitstorm that engulfs Jewell and his mother (Kathy Bates), there's nothing fake about it. It's true.

The relevant bit of the Richard Jewell story — the explosion of media interest that coalesced around a man who turned out to be wholly innocent — is a sideshow in Richard Jewell, one that ignores all the context in which it happens. There's zero appreciation for how this was the beginning of the 24/7 news cycle and cable news that was coming to rely more on sensational "breaking news" rather than in-depth, carefully reported journalism. (The infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, arguably the instigating event for this new kind of "urgent" live TV, occurred only two years before this.)

There absolutely is criticism of the media to be examined here, but Richard Jewell isn't up to the task. Instead, it cheaply invents a reporter (Olivia Wilde) who trades sex with Hamm's FBI agent in exchange for Jewell's name as their suspect. This is an appalling slander on the real journalist who broke the story, Kathy Scruggs, a woman who is no longer around to defend herself. (She died in 2001.) The film also implies that she didn't even write her own article but handed over that chore to a male reporter.

Ironically, Wilde's performance is one of the highlights of this otherwise intensely bland and directionless movie; even Sam Rockwell as Jewell's lawyer is pretty muted, though he and Wilde do briefly spar entertainingly. They are but a momentary respite, however, from a story too poorly structured and too seemingly unaware of its own core to make any sort of point at all. ♦

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