I think this is Clint Eastwood’s best film ever.
Richard Jewell was a security guard who spotted a bomb at a rock concert in a crowded public park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics and raised the alarm. The bomb went off, two people were killed and more were injured, but without Jewell’s determined and courageous actions in moving people away from the bomb, god knows how many more fatalities there would have been.
Jewell was briefly hailed as a hero, but within days was under suspicion for having planted the bomb himself. Then came the media pile-on, and Jewell underwent an ordeal of public vilification and harassment comparable to that endured by the Chamberlains.
It’s no spoiler to say he didn’t do it, and that another man eventually confessed to the crime. This movie isn’t interested in the perpetrator and his motives; it’s about an innocent man railroaded and hounded by cynical and unprincipled operators in the media and law enforcement.
The parallels with the Chamberlain case don’t end there, and they are striking. Like Lindy Chamberlain, Jewell didn’t conform to what the public wanted in a victim or a hero. He was an overweight, goofy guy who lived with his mother (played by the wonderful Kathy Bates), kept a huge collection of guns and dreamed of being a policeman. He saw himself as part of the law enforcement community but had never quite managed to get a respectable toehold in it because of his tendency to throw his considerable weight around whenever he was given a badge to wear. In fact it was an earlier employer – a college Dean, who alerted the FBI when he saw Jewell’s name and remembered him as the overzealous campus cop he’d fired for exceeding his authority when busting college kids for drinking in their rooms. The FBI had no other leads at the time, and Jewell did indeed look like the kind of law-enforcement fantasist who might create a crisis in order to be hailed as a hero for saving people from its consequences.
Which is a legitimate line of enquiry and matters might have been resolved sensibly if the lead FBI investigator hadn’t leaked the information that he was a suspect to an ambitious female reporter on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which trumpeted the story and created a hell on earth for the hapless Jewell and his equally unworldly mother. They became virtual prisoners in their own home, or what was left of it after the FBI raided it and removed everything that wasn’t nailed down, including Mrs Jewell’s underwear, the Disney movie tapes she used when babysitting, and her Tupperware collection.
The way the movie tells it, the reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), had traded sexual favours for the dirt on Jewell, then broke her promise to keep it quiet. Once the story was out, which was virtually the next day, the FBI mounted an all-out effort to get Jewell, at a time when they had no other suspect and the public and the media were baying for the blood of whatever evil weirdo had done this appalling thing. (Again, I’m reminded of the way the Northern Territory government went all-out to get Lindy Chamberlain after the coroner in the first inquest blasted them for their inept investigation of Azaria’s disappearance.)
The paper has denied this version of how they got the story, and I was wondering why the real Kathy Scruggs hadn’t sued Clint Eastwood for megabucks for the double-barrelled and undoubtedly defamatory charge that she slept with a source and then betrayed his confidence.
The reason is that Scruggs died in 2001, and online reading suggests that her role in the hounding of Richard Jewell took a toll on her emotionally and professionally and worsened the substance abuse which may have hastened her death.
Like the Chamberlains, Richard Jewell had few friends in his hour of need. But lucky for him, one of them was Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a feisty attorney with an almost pathological mistrust of government institutions and an instinctive empathy with the underdog. He and Jewell had met some years earlier when Jewell was a trolley-pushing supply clerk in the firm where Watson worked. Watson was, as Jewell later puts it, the only man who didn’t routinely insult and ridicule him for his weight and his try-hard attitude. If it wasn’t for Bryant’s tough advocacy, Jewell may well have been charged with and convicted of the bombing and quite likely would have died in the electric chair.
Richard Jewell is a surprisingly uplifting story. I won’t spoil the ending by saying what happens to Jewell after his ordeal is over; suffice to say he retained his essential decency, his good humour and, perhaps astonishingly, his faith in the law enforcement establishment. And his Mom got her Tupperware back.
It’s been suggested that the only reason Richard Jewell hasn’t done better box office to date is public hostility over the depiction of a dead woman who can no longer defend herself. I recommend further online reading about the real Kathy Scruggs so you can judge for yourself.
Otherwise, this is a story told with great clarity and power. The scripting, timing and acting are excellent. I haven’t mentioned the actor who plays Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser. You might have seen him in supporting roles in BlackKlansman and I, Tonya. Interestingly, he’s described as a ‘character actor’, as if all actors aren’t required to do their best to portray ‘characters’. Perhaps ‘character actor’ is Hollywood shorthand for ‘not looking like Brad Pitt.’
Four and a half stars from me. I would have awarded five if it hadn’t been for the doubts over the Kathy Scruggs business.