‘Richard Jewell’ is no gem

Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell

“I am not a Democrat because they want your money. I am not a Republican because they take your rights away.” – Watson Bryant, attorney for Richard Jewell

Perhaps the time has come for a new Hollywood movie rating scale.
D for documentary film that is entirely factual. D minus for documentary films that are mostly factual. BT for films based on a true story that hew very closely to the truth. BT minus for films that are loosely based on a true story. I would classify QT’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood in that category.

The difference between that and Richard Jewell, the 38th feature film from director Clint Eastwood is that QT’s film makes no pretense of how it alters the actual events that the films are based on.

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) is a former supply clerk who has been hired to work security at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, GA. Along the road to get to Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, 1996, he had been a deputy with the Halberstam County Sheriff’s department, and a Piedmont College security guard. On that night, Jewell found a backpack that appeared suspicious. He begins to establish a perimeter around the bomb, getting the crowd to move back.

The bomb explodes, killing one person directly and causing another to have a heart attack. 111 were wounded. Jewell was hailed as a hero for saving lives by his quick actions.

Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell

The accolades turned to scorn just a couple of days later. Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde, Her, The Words) is a reporter on the “cop” beat for the local newspaper in Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She talks to FBI Agent “Tom Shaw” (Jon Hamm, Baby Driver) who lets slip that Jewell is the focus of the FBI’s investigation. She sprints to her desk in the newsroom and co-opts her co-worker Ron Martz (David Shae, Gemini Man) to co-author the article the AJC ran beneath the headline “F.B.I. suspects ‘hero’ guard may have planted the bomb.”

Soon afterward, FBI Special Agents Shaw and “Dan Bennett” (Ian Gomez, Larry Crowne) stop by the apartment where Richard lives with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates, Krystal). Using subterfuge, they convince Richard to follow them back to their offices. But when they ask him to actually sign a Miranda warning form, he decides he needs a lawyer.

He calls Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths) who he befriended back in his days as a supply clerk. Bryant has moved down in the world from those days, having hung out his own shingle. Jewell had reached out to Bryant right after the bombing, as he’d been approached by someone wanting him to write a book. “Don’t sign anything before I see it” had been Bryant’s advice in a bit of overdone foreshadowing.

There is a siege mentality in the Jewell home as hordes of media and law enforcement types fill the parking lot outside their residence. Soon the inevitable search warrant arrives and it seems that there are dozens of agents inventorying everything in the home. They take Bobi’s precious collection of Tupperware and her vacuum cleaner along with Richard’s arsenal of weapons.

The remainder of the movie is a race by the FBI to nail down proof that Jewell is guilty, as Bryant and crew try to prove he is not. The usual excellence of a Clint Eastwood film is on display here. Well mixed music and exteriors, strong moments of heightened tension that enhance the tautness of the storytelling. The acting is solid, with Paul Walter Hauser nailing it as the titular character. The best moments are when he is the target of verbal lambasting by Rockwell’s Watson Bryant, climaxing when Hauser’s Jewell finally admits to the feelings he hides so well.

This is a solid film that audiences will enjoy. If I were not someone who once earned a living as a working journalist, I would probably have given the movie a higher rating, probably above 4. I admit that my life experience is coloring my appraisal.

Warning. Some of what follows will involve spoilers and points that the film either takes poetic license with, or highlights omissions from the real story of Richard Jewell.

The tired trope of the female journalist who uses her sexuality to get stories needs to be discarded. That the news media makes mistakes is not a secret, but this mantra of “fake news” is so overstated that there aren’t adjectives to accurately describe the term’s overuse. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray turned what could have been an outstanding film into a message piece and that message is don’t trust the press.

I do not disagree with Mr. Ray’s contention that the AJC’s denouncement of the film’s portrayal of Kathy Scruggs was at least in part an attempt to distract from how they destroyed the life of an innocent man. But he also says he “…will stand by every word and assertion in the script” in a Vanity Fair article on the film. The scene where Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm are flirting in a bar as she plies him for information on the FBI’s investigation is an implication she used sex to get stories. If their interactions weren’t enough, Hamm’s line of “if you couldn’t fuck it out of them (referring to other men who had information) what makes you think you can fuck it out of me” is a solid assertion of that claim.

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