By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – December 12, 2019)
Stories told about the so-called “everyman” resonate with us because we know people in our own lives that reflect some, if not most, of the characteristics of the pro… or sometimes the antagonists portrayed. There’s a relationship to a neighbor or someone at church or school or someone you knew when you were a kid, or maybe it was a parent’s friend, but whatever it is, it feels right. And although I may not have known someone exactly like Richard Jewell, I certainly knew many that exhibited some “Jewell-like” tendencies.
Clint Eastwood has said he’s wanted to make this movie and tell this story for several years and that he wants people to understand that Richard Jewell, a security guard in an impossible situation during the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta during Olympic festivities in 1996, was a hero, and not the villain the federal government and the media painted him to be. In order to tell that most human of stories, righting a wrong and repairing a gross mischaracterization, Eastwood is at his best.
While Jewell wasn’t a boy scout and had some issues with understanding where the law began and ended, and both who he was and what his actual jurisdiction was, he never seemed to hold any malice, at least as Eastwood tells it. But, if we go back through some of Eastwood’s classic films, whether it’s Million Dollar Baby or American Sniper or Sully or certainly Richard Jewell, the director wants us to view a complex picture with compassion and understanding.
Without question, Richard Jewell is Clint Eastwood’s best work since Gran Torino and both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, and it makes me rework my top five for the year, just a week or two before I have to put together my ballots. There are multiple performances within the two hours that should garner serious attention, and although the studio wants to list Kathy Bates in the Best Actress category, it’s more of a supporting role. However, the character exists throughout the film, and so it’s more forgivable than had she popped up for a few minutes and disappeared.
Sam Rockwell, one of those dudes that when he shows up on screen, you realize, “Oh, I always forget how great this guy is,” is just as great as ever. He plays an incredibly rootable role here as Jewell’s attorney, and honestly his friend, someone that treated him with a humanity from the second he met him, long before he was called to defend his client’s life. Paul Walter Hauser, who plays the title role, knocks it out of the park, giving Jewell a country cluelessness at times, but also a good heart and someone that unfortunately believes people are out to help him, when very few of them are.
This may be the most affecting performance I’ve seen this year not named Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, certainly right on par with De Niro, Ruffalo, and anyone else you’d want to name. Kathy Bates might be the most decorated name in the movie, and she will, and should be, nominated, but Hauser absolutely deserves accolades. I’m intrigued by the sort of middling aggregate reviews for Richard Jewell, and the cynic in me points to the negative portrayal of the media and Eastwood’s politics as reasons to walk in with some degree of bias. There’s also the controversy over Olivia Wilde’s portrayal of AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, who Eastwood depicts as a foul-mouthed, do anything to get the story woman who sleeps with an FBI agent to get the scoop on Jewell before anyone else.
To be clear, based on what the AJC has said and others of Scruggs, who passed away in 2001, this isn’t a great look for Eastwood. The salty language and short skirts are legit, but the quid pro quo past mere flirtation wasn’t mentioned in either the article or the book the movie is based on. The story of Jewell itself is faithful according to almost every account, which makes including this even more unnecessary. Why blur the lines or add something in when so much else is right and proper? It makes little sense, and it does leave a sour impression…but it didn’t ruin the movie for me. I assume that SOME of what I’m seeing is fiction, even if based on truth. It’s Hollywood, right? It doesn’t excuse anything, but it isn’t a capital crime. It’s just shady, although we don’t know for sure, which makes it problematic.
The movie begins in 1985 and describes who Jewell was, from supply room clerk to campus security guard to actual law enforcement officer, with all the pitfalls and mistakes he makes along the way. At one point, Rockwell’s Watson Bryant tells him, “Don’t become an a–hole” once he gets power, and while Jewell doesn’t let power go to his head, you could describe his overbearing, overprotective, air on the side of caution ideals as a little beyond the pale.
But, it’s those parts of the man that led him to be the one to discover the knapsack under the bench near the radio tower in Centennial Park when almost no one else would have. It’s him that saved lives, and it’s him that after a brief moment in the sun, was plunged down a well and basically left for dead once the FBI zeroed in on him as the prime (and only) suspect. I actually had a feeling I was watching another version of the Steven Avery story in Making a Murderer here (not in guilt or innocence), but in this case, Jewell didn’t have too many skeletons in his closet outside of just being naive and a little impulsive, rather than using common sense.
Jon Hamm has to be the villain as Agent Tom Shaw, and he plays an even bigger jerk than he ever did as Don Draper in Mad Men. Here, he is singularly focused in on Jewell, attempts to manipulate him into giving up his Miranda rights, among other things, and works as hard as he can to send Jewell to the death penalty, even ignoring obvious holes and flaws in the case. Hamm does it all with a brash, arrogant, prickness that demands special attention, and watching he and Wilde together at times is hard to deal with, because you see how a seed can grow into a tree of deception and power.
The importance of this story is that as you exit the theater, you’re going to realize how much you didn’t know about the case. You heard the name “Richard Jewell” in 1996, saw him on television, and then you never may have heard anything else. He might have been quietly exonerated, with no charges ever filed, but there was no giant retraction or “fix” from the media, including from Bobi Jewell’s favorite newsman, Tom Brokaw. Eastwood tells us something that we need to know. There will always be a segment of people that will never NOT believe Jewell was the bomber, because that’s what they were told first.
That’s why hearing and seeing this side, even if simplified to fit into a two hour window, feels meaningful. When I left the movie, it didn’t leave me. It reminded me how easily things can go sideways, why friends and loved ones are priceless, and why we must always take what we hear and sift it through our brains before blindly following it or treating it as Gospel.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, rather than blindfolded fear.” The only way to grow in faith, for believers, is to go through doubts and then come through stronger, having learned more. We take far too much as fact in today’s society, reading only the headlines and not parsing the articles and spending time reading. I’m exceedingly guilty of this, having a shorter attention span than careful living requires. Richard Jewell reminded me not to be skeptical to a fault, but to allow for time to pass and more knowledge to come, so that my conclusion is educated, rather than too efficient for its own good.
Richard Jewell is an excellent movie, gripping and compelling, not overly long, but by no means short, and it will leave you wondering why you haven’t heard this full story before, and thankful that you have now. If you aren’t sure why this guy’s story should be a movie… that’s exactly why it did. We need to learn new things, not just have another retelling of something more famous or salacious. The People v. OJ Simpson was great, but it covered no new ground. This story, however, I felt educated after seeing. And that made it more meaningful.