Although we admire Clint Eastwood and his apparent willingness to do whatever he wants (at 89 1/2 years old), and despite the hysterical overreactions of the media and various bureaucratic mouthpieces, the movie Richard Jewell turns out to be just a very strong dramatic ensemble with a rather mild rebuke to overly ambitious newsmongers and stubborn law enforcement types. The Flower and I reckoned it to be a close second to Eastwood’s best movie of the decade, American Sniper.
Paul Walter Hauser plays the single-minded and officious Richard Jewell, whose general over-seriousness pays off big time when he forces his fellow security team members to take a neglected backpack seriously.
Hauser probably won’t get an Oscar for this role, which was the sort of thing that ’50s Hollywood ate up. He’s a kind of latter-day Marty. He’s grossly overweight and he assuages his low self-esteem by pursuing a course he believes to be good—a career in defending the rules, big and small, from all infractions.
As an office clerk, his attentiveness and eagerness wins him the friendship of Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, hitting it out of the park as always), but it’s not appreciated when he’s doing security campus jobs and trying to stop on-campus drinking, something the administration claims to want but really just wants to present a good front for.
Security theater, as we would come to know it in later years. Also: the odd but familiar hypocrisy of the pseudo-competent cowards who run things in this country.
The bomb that Jewell discovers at the Olympics does go off, of course, which infuriates FBI man Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) whose job it was to keep things safe. He’s not out to get Richard, at least at first, he’s just genuinely angry and embarrassed over his failure. You might get the idea that the FBI needed a scapegoat and Shaw targeted Jewell because this corpulent hick had shown him up. Hell, that might even be true, but that’s not how it’s portrayed here.
No, it’s the weaselly dean who throws Jewell to the wolves. And even he’s only acting on his best information. I mean, it’s kind of a xenophobia that Hollywood would show no remorse about were it the other way around, but Jewell’s not exactly university material and his sincere patriotism and gung-ho law-and-order attitude is the sort of thing that doesn’t sit right with the college administration crowd.
More damning is the FBI’s rush to apply the very dubious but oh-so-sexy pseudoscience of profiling to Jewell. Crazed loner seeking approval—obviously he’s the most likely target. Even though the facts, we quickly learn, do not align with this theory. Even so, this all might have been avoided without a certain catalyzing agent.
That catalyst would be Kathy Scruggs, played brilliantly by Olivia Wilde. She’s ambitious and deadly bored and at points she seems borderline sociopathic, but it’s really just the extreme sort of callousness you could expect from a member of a trade whose careers are literally built on human suffering. I don’t mean that as snark: As a journalist on any national or global scene, you’re going to quickly be exposed to more tragedy and bloodshed than any ordinary person could meaningfully address, psychically. You won’t be able to personalize it, so you pretty much have to learn to respond without emotion.
That’s bound to create some distortion.
Now, I have said (snarkily) that the least realistic aspect of the movie is when Scruggs realizes she’s done wrong and feels remorse, but that’s not fair, and the movie presents a complex, highly-flawed character. Wilde is really good here and it’s a shame that there had to be all that hyper-ventilating over using sex to get stories. I’m sure such things have been done as little more than actual prostitution—we don’t need to be coy about it—but here it’s presented as more of a mutual attraction thing, the sort of thing that would’ve happened anyway and, I mean, it’s Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm, so it’s definitely the sort of thing that is inevitable in movies.
I’ll come back in a moment and revisit the darker implications of this, but on a literal level, it’s NBD, as the kids say.
Anyway, Scruggs jumping the gun (heh) results in the media focusing in on Jewell and essentially destroying his life, as well as his mother’s (Kathy Bates). This puts the pressure on FBI to find him guilty even as their case is falling apart. They’re pretty sure they can beat—excuse me, trick a confession out of the naive Jewell who still, in his heart of hearts, believes in good guys and bad guys (and which are which in current-year America).
He’s not so dumb as to not catch on pretty fast, though, and soon he’s called on Watson Bryant to help him out. Bryant is more of a classic Eastwood hero. He’s certainly self-interested but also with a movie gunslinger’s righteousness. Nina Arlanda plays Nadia, Bryant’s bored secretary/love interest/future wife who goads him into staying the course when things look rough.
In the roughly 2 hour time period for the movie (not counting credits), Eastwood manages to create a real feeling of family between Jewell and his mother, Bryant and Nadia, and even various peripheral characters—friends who would be close to the Jewells as well as those who betrayed them.
Richard must come to grips with the fact that authority is not on his side, and his mother (who loves Tom Brokaw) has to come to the same conclusion with regard to the media. That’s the literal story here, well told, and very touching.
The larger message, which I wouldn’t put into Eastwood’s mouth, but which seems very apparent to me, is actually a lot more horrifying. The establishment, which is not particularly competent but is viciously cruel, will turn all of its power on you to destroy you, primarily for the crime of not being them.
The literal idea of a report and FBI guy being attracted to each other (and becoming friends-with-benefits) is unprofessional, but the metaphor of being aroused by destroying a normie’s life—basically that the media is the enemy of the people, but so are the federal police forces, to where it’s actually a turn-on to exert your power over the peasants?
That’s as scary as it is true.
The movie has tanked by this point, which is interesting (though it actually seems to have some legs, so maybe it won’t be as big a flop as originally trumpeted). I would’ve expected the negative press to goose the BO a little, but I notice that even the complaints have been relatively subdued (compared to the insanity of other things going on in the news). It might be that TPTB have learned to kill things through neglect, rather than negative press (which is still press, after all).
It’s his most theatrical movie, I think, going back to Gran Torino. In recent years, his movies have been interesting but very on the “just the facts, ma’am” side. This movie has a lot of interplay between the characters, and he handles the actual explosion and aftermath very well. We all would definitely recommend it.