Clint Eastwood’s unfussy, no-frills approach to directing rarely lends itself to great movies. Rarely, he happens upon a dynamite script (Unforgiven) and the rest is gravy, but more often, deficiencies present in the material and casting tend to be exposed unflatteringly for all to see. Plus, the idea of a proactive editor seems entirely foreign to his being. Richard Jewell could certainly have done with about twenty minutes shaved off it, but that aside, this is that surprisingly strong late – very late – period Eastwood picture, one that finds the reliably angry old Republican taking an axe to the FBI and the media with equal abandon (and was thus, so went the latter’s narrative, unabashedly pro-Trump). No wonder the knives were out.
Nadya: Where I come from, when the government says you’re guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent.
If you read some of the reviews, there’s nigh-on affront that Clint should get behind the innocence of his title character, simply because he’s the kind of guy who would have voted for Trump, were he still alive. And therefore, goes their peculiar logic, is obviously the sort who might well have been guilty, were he not in fact innocent (and on this angle, for all that Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray have the forces antagonistic towards Richard in their sights, they make no bones about Jewell’s less flattering “badge-wearing zealot” qualities, obsessions and foibles). In the media’s “My mother is a fish” logic, the carrion tendencies the Press displayed in Jewell’s case are transposed to Trump’s relationship with the media, and therefore, any criticisms Eastwood is making are automatically invalid, or to be faulted by any means available.
With Richard Jewell, the most visible way to achieve this was to focus on the depiction of Olivia Wilde’s journalist Kathy Scruggs, who was at the vanguard of hanging Jewell out to dry. It was outrageous and symptomatic of why the picture sucks that this female character should be depicted as willing to sleep with someone for a story. It’s an attack on women everywhere! It’s notable that History vs Hollywood answers the question of whether Scruggs slept with (an) FBI agent to get the scoop on Jewell with a decisive “No”, before admitting it can’t answer the question for definite.
My own feeling is this was an unnecessary doubling down on the character’s ruthlessness, yet still made for a more plausible development than her tearful realisation she got it wrong about Jewell, which just makes her seem like (a) a lousy reporter because she couldn’t even figure the logistics of Jewell making the phone call and being where he was when the bomb went off, and (b) nothing we’ve seen of her hitherto suggests she’d give a shit, except perhaps in regard to adverse repercussions for her career. There’s also the (not entirely unreasonable, within limits) stock defence that this is a movie, not a documentary, and if you start picking and choosing what’s fair and unfair invention without relating it back to the perspective of the dramatisation, you’re going to end up writing off pretty much every biographical movie ever made.
And so we come back to the perspective of Ray and Clint. Olivia Wilde, unsurprisingly being a full-blooded woke Nazi, backtracked on her support for the film with all the abandon of an actor whose dream was to work with Woody Allen until they figured it might be better for their career to badmouth him (yet not realising it would backfire disastrously).
Jewell was evidently a very flawed individual; a corpulent security guard at Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics, he spotted a suspicious package that turned out to be a pipe bomb; his actions almost certainly ensured there were no deaths when it went off (a hundred-plus were injured), but in the days following his initial feting, the press, stirred up by the FBI, turned savagely on him. Before long, there were gross headlines referring to his gross weight and Leno – a fine one to talk – was regularly labelling him Una-doofus. Jewell’s life fell apart as the FBI attempted to finger him for the bombing, and his own character background (over-fastidious law enforcement, even when impersonating an officer, living with his mother, a gun collection) tended to support their case.
Watson Bryant: They found some really dangerous pantyhose, apparently.
Indeed, as noted, it’s to Eastwood’s credit that he makes it very easy to see why suspicion might have fallen on Jewell. His lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, charismatic as ever, albeit one of the eventual lawyers was the prolific Lin Wood) has to ask him outright if he did it. Paul Walter Hauser’s performance is truly outstanding, and he absolutely ought to have been Academy Award nominated (in either supporting or main, he’s head and shoulders above any of the actual contenders that year).
If Clint makes Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Tom Shaw odiously malignant and unswerving in his attempts to bring down Jewell, is that necessarily a drawback? Only to the extent that the two-pronged assault makes Scruggs and Shaw collectively supremely hissable, so there’s only really superficial reflection on the institutions/edifices they represent. But portraying journalism and the federal government as morally reprehensible in this case is nevertheless entirely legitimate, and it’s entirely legitimate that Richard Jewell’s nigh-on nonagenarian director makes no bones in getting you angry about Jewell’s treatment.
Obviously, the way Clint makes his movies, what you see is what you get (there’s the occasional flourish, such as a nightmare sequence and the camera strapped to Hauser’s chest). He hasn’t worked with material this strong since the ’90s, though, and the results speak for themselves. I don’t know the ins and outs of the pipe bomb attacker; it seems like a legit case in terms of the actual perpetrator, although these days, anyone with their wits about them will instantly go to “false flag” as an explanation of a terrorist incident (see Clint’s earlier The 15:17 to Paris, or don’t; I have an aversion to these Hollywood rehearsals of recent – War on Terror – history, and the tepid box office they yield suggests few have much interest in seeing them “legitimised” be it by Paul Greengrass or Clint).*
Watson Bryant: Were you expecting a zombie invasion or something?
The only complaints that movie got were about its amateur actors; Richard Jewell had Eastwood overstepping his political boundaries, as he’s been perceived to do in several projects in the last couple of decades (American Sniper, The Mule). Is it a classic? No, but this is a picture that absolutely plays to Clint’s straightforward strengths as a director, and has little difficulty in standing as his best work in years.
*Addendum 17/08/22: There’s the additional side too, that whatever is being put out by Hollywood, left or right, is to some degree stirring the pot in terms of the Hegelian dialectic. It’s just that you aren’t nearly as likely to see the right in recent years.