‘Richard Jewell’: Clint Eastwood Declares War on the ‘Corrupt’ Media and FBI
The filmmaker channels Trump talking points with “Richard Jewell,” about the titular Centennial Olympic Park bombing hero who was unfairly targeted by journalists and the FBI.
Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell wants to be a gripping, outrage-inciting drama about an innocent victim persecuted by—and driven to fight back against—institutional power. Unfortunately, what it turns out to be is a MAGA screed calibrated to court favor with the red hat-wearing faithful by vilifying the president’s two favorite enemies: the FBI and the media.
Eastwood’s cinema has always been anti-establishment. Yet that individualistic ethos has curdled in Richard Jewell (in theaters Dec. 13), a poisonous pro-Trump effort (based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article) that finds the director following in the footsteps of his Sully and The 15:17 to Paris by again recounting the tale of a seemingly ordinary American thrust into gallant duty, only to be unjustly attacked by “horrific forces.” The axis of evil here is FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), two figures who come after portly, unassuming Richard Jewell (I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser) because his discovery of pipe bombs at Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics puts him at the scene of the crime, and his schlubby wannabe-cop persona matches a “hero bomber” profile. Tyrannical bullying, threats and character assassination follow, with Jewell cast as a patriotic red-state everyman who, for his virtuous efforts, is monstrously mistreated.
Whereas Sully Sullenberger’s victimization at the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board in Sully was largely made up by Eastwood, Richard Jewell was, after initially being hailed a hero, incorrectly pinpointed as the man behind the July 27, 1996, Centennial Park Bombing, which detonated following its discovery beneath Jewell’s bench at the base of a concert sound tower. That Richard Jewell doesn’t imagine make-believe adversaries for Jewell certainly lends it a measure of veracity lacking from its predecessor. Still, that hardly earns it any points, given that at every turn, it makes such a cartoonishly slanted case against the feds and the media that it plays as a politically motivated Trump Twitter rant masquerading as a David-vs.-Goliath thriller.
Richard Jewell begins by establishing the do-gooder bona fides of its protagonist. As a supply closet clerk, Jewell befriends firebrand lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) by demonstrating his astute attention to detail (including recognizing that Bryant loves Snickers bars from the wrappers found in his trash can). At a subsequent university job, he’s fired by an oily administrator for taking his law-and-order responsibilities too seriously. At his gig working security at the Olympics, he’s mocked by his cop compatriots for being a pretender who spouts stuff like, “I believe in protecting people.” As imagined by screenwriter Billy Ray and embodied by Hauser, he’s a kind-hearted good ol’ boy (and “good guy”) who loves guns, hunting and his momma Bobi (Kathy Bates), whom he lives with and always puts first.
On the other side of the spectrum are Richard Jewell’s caricatured enemies, who do everything short of twirl pointy mustaches. While selfless Jewell relishes being at the Games and wishes his momma had a nicer life, FBI agent Shaw (Jon Hamm) is bored at his event post and states that he always thought he was destined for more. The G-Man is a cold, me-first hardass, and thus a kindred spirit to Scruggs, a star journalist who likes to sneer at her female colleagues and similarly laments having such a dull Olympics assignment. Wilde’s Scruggs is an amoral careerist defined by her sleazy, malevolent sexuality—decked out in leopard-print tops and short skirts, she thrusts her boobs together in her first scene, talks about getting “hard” and having “balls” (because she’s a manly sort of predator), and screws Shaw in order to learn that the agency has identified Jewell as their prime suspect. Together as a dastardly FBI-media duo whose distaste for the Olympics suggests their underlying anti-Americanism, they’re a Sean Hannity segment come to living, breathing, reactionary life.
Eastwood’s depiction of Scruggs is so brazenly misogynistic that it’s hard to imagine how anyone (including Wilde, fresh off directing the progressively-minded Booksmart) found it the least bit acceptable. The fact that Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Kevin Riley has refuted this characterization on Scruggs’ behalf (she passed away in 2001) only further underlines the untrustworthy, hyperbolic nature of Richard Jewell, which never lets a moment pass without underlining its conservative agenda in big, bold colors. Jewell is offered a book deal by some “New York guys” who’ll write the tome themselves, because the East Coast media is all about dishonesty. The FBI tries to trick Jewell into signing a waiver and confessing on camera, because they’re duplicitous crooks. On the other hand, hero lawyer Bryant has a wall decorated with a bumper sticker that reads, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism,” is aided by his Russian secretary Nadya (Nina Arianda), and actually offers Jewell a QUID PRO QUO. Rockwell’s character so directly panders to the president and his base (tit-for-tat deals are honorable, the film screams!), it’s outright laughable.
It doesn’t take any effort to read such political notions into Richard Jewell, so busy is Eastwood shoveling them into one’s face. In a reasonably compelling lead turn, Hauser invests Jewell with a rage mitigated by profound disappointment at the realization that the offices he so desperately wants to join (he incessantly, pathetically tells people he’s with “law enforcement”) aren’t worthy of him, or his great nation. Rockwell’s no-nonsense attorney, meanwhile, is sure Jewell is innocent even before he’s looked into his client’s pockmarked-with-red-flags background, because as with Trump, he doesn’t need facts to discern the truth; he just knows. Jewell’s exoneration—thanks to the discovery that he couldn’t have been at the bombing scene and also placed the 911 call authorities received—is consequently treated by Eastwood as a foregone conclusion, and given less time and attention than Bryant censuring “parasite” Scruggs in her newsroom, and then silently smiling as Jewell finally stands up for himself in front of the intimidating Shaw.
Aided by the assured work of cinematographer Yves Bélanger, if undercut by Arturo Sandoval’s schmaltzy score, Eastwood’s direction is typically sturdy, and a cross-cutting sequence involving sprinter Michael Johnson winning gold is particularly sharp. Yet formal precision notwithstanding, Richard Jewell has been constructed from the ground-up as nothing more than a nuance-free rallying cry for Trumpian talking points about the corrupt villainy of the FBI and the media, and the nobility of honest, hard-working southerners who—as in a late shot of Jewell and Bryant—band together in defiant solidarity in front of the Confederate Flag.
It’s history perverted into propaganda, and thus the very sort of fake news that it—and its target audience—so hypocritically like to decry.