HomeMovies'Richard Jewell' Review: A Well-Made Film, but About What, Exactly?

‘Richard Jewell’ Review: A Well-Made Film, but About What, Exactly?

Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell
Photo Credit: Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

In 1996, Richard Jewell saved thousands of lives from a bomb he found at the Atlanta Olympics—only to be unfairly targeted as a suspect by the FBI and news media. What happened to Jewell is horrible, and he had every right to be angry about the way his life was upended for months by a corrupt justice system and reporters who didn’t do their due diligence when telling a story. It’s a story that deserves to be told.

But the way Clint Eastwood tells it in Richard Jewell is questionable, to say the least. What happened to Richard Jewell may have been terrible, but injustice doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Government corruption and dishonest media only happen because of toxic systems that are woven into the fabric of American society based on deeply ingrained misogyny, classicism, racism, and an unwavering loyalty to authority. Earlier this year, Ava Duvernay brilliantly explored how all these systems informed one another and led to the horrific mistreatment of the Exonerated Five with her brilliant miniseries, When They See Us. But Clint? He’s just mad — and I’m not quite sure he understands why.

Richard Jewell, as played by Paul Walter Hauser, has a steadfast loyalty to law enforcement, even when FBI agents are distorting his life to make him fit a criminal profile or flat-out harassing him in order to get a confession. This may have been true to Jewell’s real life (he did, after all, become a police officer after all was said and done), but the script by Billy Ray doesn’t quite know how to interrogate the toxic hero-worship that Jewell (and many real-life Americans) have. Sure, the film’s climactic moments find Jewell monologuing to the amalgamation of the FBI (Jon Hamm) about how abuse of power is wrong, but we still have to sit through scene after scene of Jewell giving law enforcement the benefit of the doubt and even defending them while counterpoints are merely name-checked shortly before being shoved off the screen. The film never once tries to explore the corruption that kicks the whole story into motion: it’s just vaguely mad that the corruption happened, but falsely ensures the audience that this was a one-time thing and all-involved were punished.

These messages are also muddled by earlier scenes, before the incident that changes Jewell’s life, when he worked as a campus security officer at a local college. The film shows him forcing himself into dorm rooms to catch students drinking, and we learn that he’s been bothering students on campus and even pulling them over for speeding nearby the school despite that not being within his jurisdiction or even part of his job. The authorities that call Jewell out for these abuses of power are depicted as weaklings who, eventually, play a role in his dehumanization. We’re supposed to support Richard’s steadfast loyalty to what he sees as “the law” and even laugh at the people who call him out for it, but the script seems totally oblivious to the fact that these oversteps are built on the same bedrock that led to the FBI’s mistreatment of Richard. It posits that abuses of power are only truly abusive if they hurt our protagonist, and that checks and balances can otherwise be ignored.

This same logical hole applies to the way Richard is depicted throughout the film. We’re meant to hate the way he’s depicted in the media, with his quirky behavior and interest in guns and military being warped by reporters to make him look like a killer. But the film still has a lot of fun at Richard’s expense, with many uncomfortable comedic beats derived from his obliviousness to what’s going on around him. An extended (and uncomfortable) gag makes fun of his love for guns and weaponry, only for the film to turn around and wag its finger at others for questioning it. One particularly tone deaf beat finds Richard being accused of having a homosexual lover, which troubles him far more than the accusations of terrorism tossed his way. It should be noted that Hauser does a very nice job playing the titular character, bringing a note of sincerity that the film is sorely lacking, but the film does him no favors.

However, the most upsetting part of Richard Jewell involves the way the news media is depicted — specifically with regards to its portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs (who, unlike the FBI characters in the film, was a real person). Kathy is depicted as a reporter who’s bored of the local news stories tossed her way and desperate for excitement. Her first scene finds her contemplating a breast augmentation in order to get more interesting stories, and the first time we see her after the terrorist attack, we find her praying that the bomber makes for an interesting subject to her story. As played by Olivia Wilde, she is constantly shown to be conniving and sexually manipulative, sleeping with sources in order to get information and only showing remorse at the very end. She’s even lit and dressed in a way that suggests a drunk reality television star, not an ambitious reporter. It’s an embarrassing caricature of a female reporter that feels particularly unwelcome in 2019.

The film’s most infuriating scene, though, comes about halfway through the picture, when Jewell and his lawyer (Watson Bryant, played by Sam Rockwell) walk into Kathy’s office to demand a retraction. Watson chastises Kathy about the importance of journalistic integrity, telling her that she ruined Richard’s life — a claim she responds to with a laugh, as if she’s some sort of supervillain. It’d be an embarrassing scene stripped of context, but, again, these things don’t just exist in a vacuum. Kathy Scruggs was a real reporter and, yes, her false reporting played a major part in the unjust treatment of an innocent man. But Kathy Scruggs died in 2001, she’s not around to defend herself or explain her actions. We truly don’t know what made her run that story — which it should be noted, many other journalists also ran without fact checking.

To make her the villain of the story, and to accuse her of an outdated and misogynistic trope always lobbied at female reporters, is character assassination of the most pathetic and cowardly form. It’s important to consider that what actors film during production may not resemble the finished cut, but it’s particularly upsetting to think about the number of talented people who willingly went along with this horrific scene. And it’s infuriating that a film about a man being falsely accused of something would so gleefully run with a story without considering its authenticity. But it only proves further: Richard Jewell is not angry about injustice. It’s just angry.

At this point in Eastwood’s career, it’s no surprise that Richard Jewell is competently made. Is it free of artistic risk? Sure. But it has all the trappings of a legal thriller that you can put on in the background as you fold laundry. Eastwood populates his cast with talented actors who can do their job effectively. Unlike some of the year’s other worst movies, this one is at least watchable. But there’s a grossness and a hypocrisy here that is, frankly, inexcusable.

Richard Jewell is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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