The story of Richard Jewell is one of the saddest of in American history. Jewell was a security guard working at Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics. On the night of July 27, Jewell alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation about a mysterious backpack. Shortly after, bombs in the pack detonated injuring over a hundred people and leaving two dead.
In the immediate aftermath, Jewell was labeled a hero. Days later, he was revealed as a person of interest by the FBI. The media ran with this information. Jewell was the focus of intense scrutiny. The one time savior was instantly vilified. In October, the FBI informed Jewell he was no longer under investigation. A person who should have been remembered as a hero died in relative obscurity in 2007.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Richard Jewell is a biographical drama that is supposed to tell the true story of the man. While the movie certainly shows the dangers of rushing to judgement, it comes off as more of a vehicle to deliver Eastwood’s personal views. Throughout the film, audiences are subjected to messages about the dangers of fake news and how manipulative the government can be. Combined with the antiquated portrayal of the female characters, the actual story becomes muted.
The most glaring issue is Kathy Scruggs. A reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Scruggs is written as an unscrupulous journalist who only cares about writing the next big story. The character is completely over the top in how evil she is supposed to be. Shortly after the bombings, she prays the culprit is found immediately. She also hopes that person is interesting so the ensuing article she writes will draw attention. From debating getting breast enhancements to look better on television to having sex with an FBI agent in exchange for information, Scruggs is laughably villainous.
Perhaps it is a misguided attempt to show how powerful of a woman she is. The problem is she is a throwback to the femme fatales of the 1940s. These were women who existed to look beautiful and use their sex appeal to get what they wanted. They were not to be trusted and would turn on anyone at any moment. Olivia Wilde does a fine job playing the part – the audience will definitely hate her. Or course, how can they not dislike a person who seemingly has no ethics? The portrayal also makes a tearful scene at the end involving the character that much sillier.
Richard Jewell does not just attack Scruggs. The movie rails against media in general. This is a very topical issue in today’s world where people make and change their opinions based on the latest topic trending on Twitter. Eastwood seems to have a different motive here, however. The movie is partially about the court of public opinion but even more about fake news. It is implied many times part of Jewell’s guilt is due to him being a “lonely white male”. This may be an accurate description of the FBI profile, but the fact only the antagonists use the phrase is very telling.
Conversely, the performances are some of the best seen this year. Sam Rockwell is amazing as Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant. Kathy Bates is little more than the doting mother, but does her usual magnificent job. Paul Walter Hauser manages to hold his own as Jewell. Even though he shares the screen with two Academy Award winners, he never gets overshadowed. Hauser does a good job of toning down the script’s ridiculously good ol’ boy depiction of Jewell. It is the only part of the movie that sets the correct tone.
Richard Jewell had so much potential. It is a demoralizing story that can deliver a poignant message in today’s clicks happy atmosphere. The film also has a strong cast that work together tremendously. Unfortunately, it takes too many detours that impact the intended meaning. The female characters are decades old archetypes while Eastwood’s version of the media is more about conspiracies than commentary. Is Richard Jewell a good movie? Absolutely. Is it one of the best of the year? Not by a long shot.
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