One of the more tragic things that’s happened in recent cinema history is the decline of Clint Eastwood. One of the greatest actors and filmmakers of all time has sadly receded into a parody of himself, figuratively becoming the old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn after literally playing that figure in Gran Torino. Over the last decade, we’ve watched him fade from the nuanced auteur behind such emotionally resonant films as Million Dollar Baby to a partisan hack who lectures an empty chair and makes movies that lionize psychotic killers as American heroes while calling the citizens of an occupied nation “savages.”
Unfortunately, it seems he’s hit his nadir with Richard Jewell, a film that could have been phenomenal if it focused on the imperfect man at its center, a well-meaning but deeply flawed microcosm of American exceptionalism who rose to the occasion when thrust into an impossible situation. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Jewell, working as freelance security, found a suspicious package, which turned out to be a bomb. He was able to help evacuate the area, resulting in minimal casualties when the bomb finally went off. In the aftermath, he was alternately hailed as a hero and suspected of being the actual bomber, including an investigation from the FBI into the incident, for which he was eventually cleared, and years later a man named Eric Rudolph was arrested. All of this makes for an incredible story that could have been among the best films of the year had Eastwood treated the story with the same empathy with which he’s treated opposing factions in other great works like Flags of our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Instead, he opts for “Old Man Yells at Cloud” conspiracies about the FBI and the media working to discredit and destroy an obvious white savior helping to make America great again. Seriously, the attempts to make this a parallel to an imagined persecution of Donald Trump are so transparent they might as well be plate glass.
Paul Walter Hauser stars as Jewell, making this his second major role, and both times it’s been in movies about Olympic scandal, as he played the bumbling Shawn Eckhardt, who ordered the kneecapping of Nancy Kerrigan in I, Tonya. I honestly wonder if Eastwood cast him after watching that film, because the characters are essentially the same, idiots who live with their mothers and have delusions of grandeur when it comes to combat and guns. Only in I, Tonya, he was a joke. Here, he’s not only the hero, but somehow the American ideal. Showing him shooting range targets with lethal precision using an assault rifle and complaining about being fired for overstepping boundaries is somehow depicted as a positive quality of Jewell’s character, rather than a sign of mental illness.
The real Richard Jewell had a rap sheet that played to the idea that he fantasized about being a tough hero cop, which is why the FBI looked into him after the bombing, a prudent move, if mishandled. Those items are mentioned offhandedly in the film, but they’re used more to humanize him than indict him. An early scene where he gets fired after knocking down college students he catches drinking in their dorms is played not as a complicated situation where all sides have something to answer for, but instead as ungrateful, entitled kids not respecting authority and a sniveling academic punishing a “real” man to protect his own elitist position.
That’s not to say that Jewell was a bad person, just that it’s intellectually and artistically dishonest to bring up relevant character traits, and them dismiss them as an adult version of “boys will be boys” in favor of the laudatory narrative. One of the few ways in which Eastwood does offer some shades of grey is in regards to Jewell not being able to keep his mouth shut. No matter how many times he’s told by his mother (Kathy Bates) or his lawyer (Sam Rockwell) to shut up, Jewell continues to dig his own grave by speaking casually about how he’d punish people or his affinity for weaponry. However, any time I get my hopes up that Eastwood will listen to his better angels and embrace the imperfect humanity present on both sides of the coin, he ruins it by making Jewell’s idiocy and self-incrimination into an “aww shucks” moment because he’s just such a good guy and has such deference for law enforcement that he wants to help any way he can, even as the establishment works to ruin his life.
In Eastwood’s head, the real enemy of this story isn’t the bomber, but instead the U.S. government and the media writ large. The crusade against Jewell is a dual spearhead by FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), a composite of several investigators in the case who is bent on destroying Jewell for a) daring to think he could be law enforcement and b) to cover his own ass for not stopping the bombing even though he was on scene at the time; and Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a ball-breaking Jezebel of a journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who only cares about getting the most salacious story possible in hopes of advancing her career. She seemingly lives to exploit human suffering for her own means.
The depiction of both entities is disgraceful. As noted, Shaw is a composite, which means any number of G-men who made a mistake can claim plausible deniability, but it’s still irresponsible to claim such an irrational vendetta like Shaw’s character seems to have. In high profile cases, there can be pressure for a quick arrest, but that type of shit usually happens at the local level, not at the federal, where the best of the best are trained to avoid and eschew this exact type of bullshit. But including that would make the government seem competent, and we can’t have that.
And then there’s Scruggs. As has been mentioned in numerous criticisms of this movie, the character assassination that Eastwood places on her is horrid. Her introduction sees her cuss out the entire newsroom and lament that she’ll have to get a boob job in order to make it onto a TV anchor desk. When the media frenzy around Jewell – which she helps start – breaks out, she camps out in Sam Rockwell’s car looking to make it “worth his while” if he gives her a scoop. She trades heavy petting and eventually sex with Shaw for the tip on Jewell. When the bombing happens, all she cares about is if the bomber is “interesting” and camera friendly. The character waves around her own headlines about Jewell in a naked attempt to make her personal indictment of him as a “wannabe” cop seem ironic because his innocence and eventual exoneration makes her a “wannabe” reporter. And if you had any doubt about what Eastwood thinks of the fourth estate, just take a look at the myriad shots that frame Scruggs with the shadows of window blinds covering her face, literally putting her behind bars, albeit horizontal ones.
It’s sickening. At least with Shaw, you had the composite to pass off any accusations of bias. But with Scruggs, you had a real person. A real person, mind you, who died in 2001, and thus has no ability to defend herself. For its part, the AJC put out a statement demanding an apology and requesting a disclaimer before the film about the dramatization and the fabrication of her character’s actions. No such disclaimer has been put out, though it did happen for another film which I’ll be reviewing later on.
If Eastwood had any interest in fairness, he could have at least treated Scruggs with the same kid gloves he gives Jewell, in that you can highlight the flaws but spin it in a positive context. Instead, at best Scruggs gets a manufactured “come to Jesus” moment after Rockwell basically calls her a whore and publicly shames her in front of her coworkers. Because, you see, it’s impossible for a woman to understand that she’s wrong unless there’s a MAN there to EXPLAIN it. I wonder if there’s a word for that…
Now, despite this bullshit, this is still a well-made film. The camera work is pristine. The sound editing is subtle, but effective, like a loud landline phone ringing at just the right moment to jangle your nerves. Even though the material is weak and horribly slanted, Bates, Rockwell, and Hauser give terrific performances, with Bates getting some awards attention (Golden Globe nomination for Supporting Actress, and an SA win from the National Board of Review). There is some good technical filmmaking on display here.
But in the end, the film is bogged down because of Eastwood’s crystal clear agenda. An innocent white man is railroaded by an out-of-control FBI (part of an out-of-control government led by archival footage of Bill Clinton and exemplified by a poster in Rockwell’s office where it says he fears the government more than terrorists) and a media working in tandem to orchestrate a witch hunt to bring down a hero, and the only ones who can save him are a loudmouthed “put you in your place” lawyer and his Russian girlfriend (Nina Arianda). Why it’s just like that other innocent white American hero who’s fighting bravely against an out-of-control FBI and a media determined to bring him down. Doesn’t he have an obnoxious lawyer and Russian friends, too? He must be innocent, right? Right?
See, this is the fine line you have to walk when you bring politics into a film. It can be done, but it has to be done delicately, even if the characters are acting in extreme ways. Take Just Mercy for a very recent example. That’s an issue film, and one can easily argue a liberal issue film. Meanwhile, Eastwood has made Richard Jewell into a conservative issue film. The problem is, with Just Mercy, you have plenty of documented source material, including public statements, court proceedings, testimony, and anecdotal evidence of still-living people who inspired the characters. The movie still presents a liberal viewpoint, but it’s grounded in procedural fact despite the times it takes artistic license.
Here, however, you have basically two sources, an article from “Vanity Fair” and a novel no one has read. Apart from the bullet point events, facts are tossed aside in favor of the biased messaging. It’s much more important to see that Jewell was a misunderstood hero victimized by the right wing’s go-to strawmen than to get at the heart of who he is and the good he did despite his ordeal. The controversy matters more than the man, or the truth, to paraphrase the movie’s tagline.
A movie like Just Mercy starts with, “Here’s a guy on death row, and we’re here to defend him so he just doesn’t die. Oh wait, turns out he’s innocent. Let’s fight to save him, and highlight the problems with the system as part of that process.” Start at the beginning, work your way to the end. Richard Jewell, however, starts with the ending of “Richard Jewell is a hero and a victim,” and works backwards to create bad guys to justify putting him on a pedestal and heightening his hero profile even further.
It’s that very degree of fabricated sensationalism that Eastwood himself decries via Kathy Scruggs, yet he engages in it with full gusto. There are flaws in the way mass media operates, particularly when it comes to blowing up a story for the sake of ratings and sales. But sadly that’s the nature of the beast. The merits can be debated, but as it stands, journalism is a for-profit industry, and sometimes has to resort to such tactics to compete in the marketplace. And when you take that reality and distort it to demonize a Constitutionally-protected institution, you sacrifice any credibility you might have in the argument.
Was Richard Jewell a hero? Yes. Was his public scrutiny harsh and overblown? Yes. Did it come about because some trollop wanted a scoop, some emasculated FBI guy wanted to redeem his own failures, and neither cared about who they hurt to do it? No. Should this be considered morally equivalent to a criminal politician being held to account through legal, Constitutional process? FUCK AND NO! And that’s why this film fails. It takes an awe-inspiring true story and bastardizes it to score cheap political points. It’s a bit heartening that this tanked at the box office, hopefully it means that people are getting wise to Eastwood’s late-stage bullshit. But even if that is the case, there are still people gullible enough to buy this dreck. As I left the theatre, an elderly couple walking in front of me muttered to each other, “See, this is why you can’t trust the FBI or the media. They lie all the time to get what they want.” These people vote, folks.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Will Clint Eastwood ever get his mojo back? Can Paul Walter Hauser make an entire career out of an Olympic typecast? Can we make him into Ryan Lochte? Let me know!