Director Clint Eastwood has a lot to say about the power and influence of media, and uses this real-life story as the backdrop for his message.
Richard Jewell was a by-the-book security guard working in Atlanta in 1996...he was the type of straight-laced officer that aspired to be the best at what he did, and maybe even took his job a bit too seriously at times. That's an annoying trait if you're a co-worker of someone like Richard, but his rigid attention to detail ended up saving hundreds of lives - literally - on a fateful day in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
"Richard Jewell" is a dramatization of the true events involving Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) and how he went from media darling to the prime suspect of an FBI investigation following the Centennial Park bombing, where Jewell was the person who actually located the elaborate pipe bomb that was set for mass damage. Domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph actually was the one that set the bomb that killed one and injured over 100 more. Had it not been for Jewell alerting authorities and evacuating the area, it is estimated that the casualties would have been in the hundreds.
Eastwood's focus is not on Rudolph, or even the bombing, but it's more of a character study of the man, Richard Jewell. But more than that, Eastwood - a stout Republican in real-life - sees this story as a way to explore how the media, and the government, has the power to ruin lives. Jewell went from hero to Prime Suspect #1 in a matter or days, and his life and reputation was destroyed in the process. In the film, the relentless government hawk is represented by FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and the "fake news" media's ruthlessness is symbolized with real-life Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who Eastwood shows will do ANYTHING to land her story.
That "anything" has created controversy outside of the film - you may have heard - since the film involves a scene where Scruggs implies offering sex for intel for her story. This little nugget was news to everyone who saw the film, and has no bearing in reality...Scruggs, who died in 2001, is not around to defend herself either.
In fairness, it's a bit hypocritical to call out a "right-wing" director like Eastwood (and screenwriter, Billy Ray) for "playing loose with facts"...nearly every "liberal" film in Hollywood takes liberties with their telling of the "truth." It's understandably troubling, however, that Eastwood/Ray would make such a damning implication given the #MeToo climate in our society, and given that this seems like a wholly unnecessary lie.
The problem with "Richard Jewell" the film is that Eastwood goes further than "slant," he goes full-tilt when it comes to representing journalists, and making its point, in the film. One scene, for example, shows Scruggs dancing and parading around her newsroom holding a newspaper in which her story made the front page, as the entire staff hoots, hollers and cheers her on. In the background of attorney Watson Bryant's (Sam Rockwell) office, a small sign can be seen that reads: "I fear government more than I fear terrorism." A subtle modern-conservative jab at the establishment that is completely unrelated to Rockwell's character. Eastwood peppers his film with messages, instead of letting the movie's story work on it's own. And once it gets past the events of the bombing, it devolves into a slow-paced drudge of a film.
For what it's worth, Hauser shows amazing nuance as Richard Jewell, and can Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates please star in every movie? The performances are not the issue, and indeed this abuse of media and government power is a story in need of telling.
What's dangerous in today's world though, is that Eastwood's message is so transparent, and he is obviously conflating the story of Richard Jewell with today's media climate. In blatant other words, just because this happened to Richard Jewell doesn't mean that it is happening right now to Donald Trump. But on the flip, this undeniably DID happen to Richard Jewell, so it would be equally as foolish not to consider that this abuse of power - by those wielding power - has not happened since, or could not happen again.
The real Richard Jewell died at age 44, of complications of Diabetes. The story being told might have been even more effective had it wanted to know what happened to him AFTER the media/government chewed him up and spit him out. In the same way, Eastwood/Ray dispose of Richard Jewell as soon as he's served their purpose, exposing that they weren't necessarily interested in this man's life at all, as much as they were using it as a political soap box.
Richard Jewell the man deserved more, and "Richard Jewell" the film does too.
Run Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates.
Directed by Clint Eastwood ("The Mule," "Sully," "American Sniper," "Gran Torino," "Million Dollar Baby," "Unforgiven").
"Richard Jewell" is in theaters on Friday, December 13th, 2019.
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