Clint Eastwood cast his aged eyes upon America, the flood of indictments and prison sentences raining on a Russian puppet in the White House, the daily affronts to truth, decency, morality, legality and patriotism reported by the press, and decided now was the perfect time to make a movie attacking the F.B.I. and the media.
It’s not wholly unexpected for a movie star/director with clout who vented his politics in his movies during the Clinton years, who engaged in dubious battle with a chair on national TV to ridicule a president who didn’t share his ideology.
His “Richard Jewell” is a quasi-comical “Absence of Malice” remake and a defense of a guy rightly “investigated” by the Feds, who crossed the line from investigating to targeting the security guard who was the first person who found the pipe-bomb stuffed backpack in a park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And it’s a troublingly inaccurate account of the media circus that descended on this hapless hero briefly at the center of a terror case that riveted the world, which is what you get when “The World comes to Atlanta.”
Eastwood’s Jewell, played with sympathy and an unsophisticated native wit and integrity by Paul Walter Hauser, is rescued from the TV and print press stereotyping of the day and remembered as a fellow who wanted to be a cop so badly he immersed himself in the procedures and even the bomb-making arcana that made him literally “the right guy, in the right place at the right time.”
He may come off as a morbidly obese crank and a zealot who goes overboard as a campus security “rent-a-cop” in early scenes, as a starstruck fanboy who goes way above and beyond in cooperating with the F.B.I. (Jon Hamm) that is turning him from a national hero who saved lives into the focus of their suspicions. But he was clever enough to get his lawyer (Sam Rockwell, a hoot) in there, and fast.
Kathy Bates plays his overwhelmed mother, whom he lived with, perhaps another nail in the coffin of “he fits the profile” — a frustrated lone white male who wants to be perceived as a hero, even as he’s plotting his revenge on America.
And to her lasting shame, Olivia Wilde signed on to play an oversexed caricature of the admittedly imperfect Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who first broke the news that Jewell was under suspicion, thanks to an F.B.I. leak that history says she DIDN’T sleep her way into, the “Absence of Malice” element to Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray’s bastardization of this “history.”
But the real “malice” here is the missing context, the refusal to focus on the victims, the panicked search for the killer or portraying the real bomber.
When you’ve got the time to slap an “I fear government more than I fear terrorism” bumper sticker on the wall of the lawyer’s office, shove in a joke about “organizations and associations” Jewell is asked if he belongs to — “You a member of the NRA?” “Is the NRA a terror group?” (Russian financed, inspiring violence and sowing national division? Yes it is.), you’ve got time to do this right.
That missing context is skipping past the Oklahoma City bombing, and its bombers, not bothering to profile, even briefly, right wing Atlanta bomber Eric Rudolph, to not even note how the F.B.I. was on high alert because Wing Nut America was in the middle of a militia-forming, bomb making, violence-threatening and government-attacking nervous breakdown because a Democrat was elected president.
With every Trump rally including crowd-interviews threatening “a new civil war” if Putin’s pick is removed from office, these are poisonous omissions. In an era of daily denials of fact, an “up is down” barrage of partisan hacks screaming conspiracy theories on TV when the facts point to their complicity, Eastwood turns himself into the cinema’s Lindsey Graham for “Richard Jewell.”
Clint, of course, gets Clinton footage in here, a dig at academic “elites” along with a final needle in the balloon of Tom Brokaw’s career (NBC covered the Olympics, and we see Brokaw, Couric and an actor playing Bryant Gumbel asking questions and repeating speculation).
It’s a film that moves in fits and starts. But I liked most of the performances, and was most interested in Rockwell’s attorney Watson Bryant, who brings some welcome moral outrage to the proceedings, and a sophistication and legal savvy that also fly in the face of how out of his depth this guy was, like his client. But bully for Clint, making a lawyer a hero, even if he storms into the newspaper newsroom to upbraid the “poor excuse for a reporter” who shone the spotlight on his client.
Did that happen. Nope. And there are plenty of places where we know Ray/Eastwood crossed the line that undercuts the credibility of the picture.
Jewell was a complicated man, who had plenty of red flags on his work and arrest record, a “get back into police work” agenda and a house full of guns. Of course they’d look at him. And if the press gets word of that in a story the whole world is competing over, it’s not going to be pretty.
But “Richard Jewell” doesn’t do the man, the tragedy, the case or the political climate that surrounded it then and now justice.
Eastwood’s made some bad movies in recent years, along with some gems. This is the first film of his I’ve seen since his orangutan co-star days that had me embarrassed for him.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates.
Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood, script by Billy Ray. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:09