REVIEW: Richard Jewell [2019]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 129 minutes
    Release Date: December 13th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Director(s): Clint Eastwood
    Writer(s): Billy Ray / Marie Brenner (Vanity Fair article “American Tragedy: The Ballad of Richard Jewell”)

I’m me.

There’s a major difference between fact (Richard Jewell is currently being investigated as a potential suspect) and editorial conjecture meant to carry your byline and publication into the national spotlight (Richard Jewell epitomizes the lone bomber profile and the FBI are nearing an arrest). Some journalists can’t unfortunately spot the difference. Why? Because sensationalized speculation sells. Once the 24-hour news cycle generated for-profit entities more worried about ratings than transparently calling a spade a spade, our ability to discern truth from opinion became eroded to the point where we can no longer be trusted to figure it out ourselves. “News” eventually folded into opinion until facts themselves were rendered nonessential. Empirical facts ceased to exist. Truth suddenly became contingent on whether it fits your personal viewpoint.

Where does that disintegration of our collective comprehension leave its victims? As Marie Brenner‘s Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” so succinctly posits: within a nightmare devoid of escape. It’s that delicate setting of psychological and emotional turmoil that screenwriter Billy Ray and director Clint Eastwood attempt to create through their cinematic adaptation, Richard Jewell. They take us back to witness the hero’s infinite wealth of empathy and unyielding passion to build a career in law enforcement. That earnestness ultimately pigeonholes Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) as awkward while cynics misconstrue his desire for respect and praise as the attention-seeking behavior of a narcissist. What’s therefore easier to believe? That he can actually be loved? Or that he could manufacture a tragedy to steal it?

Because the answer obviously hews towards the latter, we must discover why. The first step comes from watching how his genuine kindness helps him build a relationship with a lawyer where he works (Sam Rockwell‘s Watson Bryant). It’s the type of friendship Jewell would think is much closer than outside appearances inevitably prove. That’s what happens when everyone else in his life instantly dismisses him as a clown to laugh at. He must latch onto those who conversely treat him like a human being—a list that probably didn’t go further than his mom (Kathy Bates‘ Bobi) and best friend (Niko Nicotera‘s Dave Dutchess) before Bryant arrived. Bosses always see Jewell’s over-zealousness as problematic (especially in law enforcement fields) while others believe his calm demeanor comes across as simple.

His being undeterred despite the constant speed bumps trying to slow him down is therefore inspiring. Where many would have given up, Jewell treats each opportunity as an interview towards getting back on a road that leads to a badge. This is why he’s excited to stand watch behind the sound tower located across from the stage at Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It’s a close enough cousin to police work to feel pride and it provides a venue with which to meet officers and maybe leave an impression. But he’s still Richard Jewell. He’s still the guy people laugh with so they can laugh about him later. He’s still the rules lawyer they scoff at until his inflexible nature literally saves their lives.

Or did he put them in peril in the first place? Eastwood and company thankfully doesn’t make it so we have to ask that question. Their film’s main goal is to exonerate Jewell with as widespread and mainstream a venue as possible since the damage done in 1996 was catastrophic enough to surely be a cause of his premature heart failure at age forty-four. So we know he didn’t plant the bomb because we never leave his side. We know what Bryant soon discovers after getting a call from his old friend “Radar” to represent him against FBI interrogation: Jewell is getting railroaded and no one else has the ability to help dig him out. Commence the chaos born from being judged in a public courtroom of opinion.

While this ordeal is handled with nuance where Jewell is concerned (Hauser is absolutely wonderful as this big-hearted man of conviction and etiquette gradually cracking under the weight of realizing the institutions he believed were pure and just aren’t), nothing else is. It’s also difficult to separate Eastwood’s politics from what’s an embellished and slanderous depiction of journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) and the FBI (represented by Jon Hamm‘s Tom Shaw). Taking on a project where the press and FBI are the main villains and then painting them in broadly cartoonish strokes that align with Donald Trump’s own hyperbolic assault on both is one helluva coincidence. Even if everything on-screen is true (many who knew the late Scruggs say otherwise), his handling of the material is highly suspect.

That’s not to say Scruggs and the government should be let off the hook. They deserve to be dragged through the coals for what they did to this innocent man. My problem lies in how their characters seem to be part of a completely different movie than Jewell. The “white hat/black hat” dynamic is so over-the-top that it did diminish my emotional investment. Rather than be a complex look at a very real problem with today’s society, Richard Jewell becomes an over-simplified representation of facts that itself editorializes in the same way as those it’s vilifying. So while I did enjoy the whole thanks to Hauser’s affecting performance (as augmented by Rockwell and Bates), I refuse to blindly ignore its blatant hypocrisy in the name of so-called “justice.”

[1] © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Claire Folger Caption: (Center Left-Center Right) PAUL WALTER HAUSER as Richard Jewell, ALAN HECKNER as Bill Miller and ALEX COLLINS as Max Green in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “RICHARD JEWELL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Claire Folger Caption: (L-r) SAM ROCKWELL as Watson Bryant, KATHY BATES as Bobi Jewell and PAUL WALTER HAUSER as Richard Jewell in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “RICHARD JEWELL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Claire Folger Caption: (L-r) JON HAMM as Tom Shaw, IAN GOMEZ as Dan Bennet and PAUL WALTER HAUSER as Richard Jewell in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “RICHARD JEWELL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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