In Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood reshapes the true story of a modern-day hero to fit his libertarian fantasies for the second time in his career. Four years ago, he released Sully, a film based on the miraculous emergency landing of Captain Chesley Sullenberger in the Hudson River. Lacking any discernible villains, he manufactured a fictional investigation and made adversaries out of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB is responsible for investigating any major transit accidents, but in the eyes of the veteran filmmaker, it exists to make Sully’s life miserable. Unlike Sullenberger, Richard Jewell suffered from character assassination. Yet, for some reason, Eastwood mishandles his story by resorting to character assassination.
During a concert at the Centennial Park in Atlanta, Richard Jewell (a terrific Paul Walter Hauser) discovered a suspicious package placed underneath a bench. He promptly alerted the authorities, and upon confirmation from explosives experts, evacuated the concertgoers. He saved lives and was rightfully declared a hero. Incredibly enough, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), headed by Tom Shaw (John Hamm) placed Jewell under investigation because he fits a specific profile: the white, male, police officer copycat who seeks glory and attention by rescuing people from situations they created themselves. Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde at her hammiest), an ambitious journalist from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, scored a major scoop about the investigation. The agents and the media hounded Jewell at his every turn. With the help of his friend, lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), he did everything to prove his innocence, including a heartbreaking public plea from his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates).
Though not at par with his best works, Eastwood has delivered a solid film. His skill as a director in full display in the execution of the bombing scene. Therein lies the problem, a well-crafted film like Richard Jewel can expertly hide its failings. An innocent man going up against the government and the media going is a libertarian jackpot. But the dodgy portrayal of the bureau and the media, Scruggs in particular, is the greatest failing of the film. It is inarguable: both institutions resorted to character assassination and harassment. But by choosing to portray the agents as composite characters and hiding their real names speaks volumes on the intention of Eastwood, especially in comparison to his portrayal of Scruggs. By all accounts, she is a sharp journalist and a splashy personality. She is also dead and will never be able to defend herself. In one contentious scene, she extracted information from one of the agents in exchange for sexual favors. The Atlantic-Journal Constitution called it false and malicious since the paper did an investigation before on the allegations against Scruggs and found no truth to it. Simply put, the film slut-shamed and maligned a dead female reporter for narrative purposes.
Criticizing the character assassination of a real-life hero by assassinating the character of another person is quite a choice. Keeping the identities of the male federal agents incognito is also quite a choice. The mishandling of these characters distracts us from the excellent performance of Paul Walter Hauser and his engaging chemistry with Sam Rockwell. Even the impassioned plea of Kathy Bates (the passport to her Oscar nomination) isn’t able to hide the problem. The likely takeaway of moviegoers, though, oblivious of the poor treatment of Scruggs is that it’s a decent film – and it is for the most part. Reshaping stories to fit a political narrative is a sorry form of historical revisionism and our heroes deserve better.
Richard Jewell (2020)
Even if it shows a filmmaker with unquestionable talent past his prime, Clint Eastwood in his latest film, Richard Jewell, seems to feel unmoored from any responsibility of telling a truth-based story.