On July 27, 1996 a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics. News coverage was heavy, immediate and contributed to the false accusation of Richard Jewell, a security guard who worked at the venue. This story became a regular feature on the evening news, ramping up as the FBI and the news media fed the American public a false narrative in a rush to judgment declaring Jewell guilty without evidence and before being charged. In that respect, we all participated in this gripping true story.
Clint Eastwood, age 89, brings us his most recent directorial effort since 2018’s 15:17 to Paris. Richard Jewell is a true story that should have been told much sooner. Eastwood has directed several other films in which people are falsely accused by the media and/or authority figures (Mystic River, Sully). Mr. Jewell died in 2007 at age 44, having been quietly exonerated following the confession of the actual bomber. I don’t remember that news story, do you?
As the film opened in theaters this month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution threatened to sue over the depiction of the newspaper’s handling of the story, along with the portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs (deceased 2001) trading sex for a scoop. Jewell sued the newspaper for defamation after he was cleared of the crime but the case was thrown out. In an ironic twist, the newspaper is now defending its own reputation. They should know better. Meanwhile, nothing sells tickets like a good controversy.
Scruggs is played by Olivia Wilde as an aggressive, brash newsroom sleuth who seems to need help with her writing from a fellow reporter: “You know, that wordy thing you do.” She goes head to head with Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), whose personal history with Jewell leads him to believe in his innocence.
But Jewell himself, wonderfully played by Paul Walter Hauser, creates numerous cringe-worthy moments, talking too much, forgetting key pieces of information and relating so heavily to law enforcement as an overzealous wannabe, trying to “help” them do their job – to his own detriment. His good old boy southern persona, along with his obesity and kindness to a fault all work to undermine his defense. At some point he comes off as just plain stupid.
A turning point occurs in a heated exchange when Bryant challenges Jewell’s failure to get mad. Jewell finally angrily admits to understanding that he is now, and has long been, the brunt of bullying and jokes. The pressure of the hounding media and the railroading FBI scrutiny tears at his otherwise unshakeable optimism and reduces his mother (Kathy Bates) to tears. John Hamm as steely FBI agent Tom Shaw employs trickery on the gullible Jewell at every turn, being more concerned with “solving” the crime than capturing the actual perpetrator.
Among the list of Producers for Richard Jewell we find Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. DiCaprio considered a role in the film as a southern lawyer, but stayed on as a producer instead. Hill was originally intended to play the title role. He also stayed on as a producer. The film is better cast as a result of both choices.
New and original footage are intermingled throughout the film, some scenes of which were filmed at the actual location. News footage, Olympic highlights and re-enacted action on the ground all contribute to the film’s intensity and believability. In fact, an actual Katie Couric interview with the real Jewell is shown without attempting to mask or cut away from the actor.
This is a quick two-hour movie. The ending falls somewhat flat. There is no big reveal, redemption or comeuppance. And perhaps that reflects the media’s loss of interest as the story became less sensational. But that becomes something of a lesson for us as viewers and consumers of media.
Richard Jewell (2019) runs 2 hours, 9 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?