Clint Eastwood’s real-life tale of injustice is a fine addition to the veteran director’s filmography.
The real-life, pulled-straight-from-the-headlines heroism of US citizens (well, men) has inspired the majority of Clint Eastwood’s films in the last half-decade or so – American Sniper (2014), Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016), The 15:17 to Paris (2018) and, most recently, Richard Jewell.
That heroism sometimes comes with an asterisk and at a terrible cost: Sniper’s Chris Kyle was a highly-decorated Navy SEAL sharpshooter, but also a divisive figure whose life was ended by a fellow veteran. Outside forces sometimes seek to undermine it: Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s conduct was the subject of a potentially career-ending official investigation, despite him saving the lives of everyone aboard a stricken passenger jet. And sometimes it is mistaken for something else entirely: Security guard Jewell (compellingly essayed here by I, Tonya‘s Paul Walter Hauser) may have prevented dozens of deaths at the 1996 Olympics, but the US state and media declared war on him because they decided to believe he was instigator not saviour.
Only in The 15:17 to Paris (2018) – in which three US travellers aboard the eponymous train foil an Islamist terror attack – do acts of heroism take place and, without further complication or qualification, are they fully appreciated and rewarded. In Eastwood’s world, if it isn’t quite a case of no good deed going unpunished, then it is very close to it.
Based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article, and The Suspect, a book about the case from last year, Richard Jewell relates the true story of the bombing of an outdoor concert held at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. The titular Jewell’s quick thinking prevented a catastrophe but soon after being declared a hero, he himself is accused of actually committing the crime. Even though he isn’t arrested, Jewell’s life and that of his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates in an Oscar-nominated performance) are turned upside down. But, as the vultures circle (personified by Jon Hamm’s FBI man and Olivia Wilde’s newspaper reporter), help arrives in the form of local attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a former work colleague of Jewell’s, who quickly realises his client is the victim of a shoddy rush to judgement.
This is a David and Goliath story in which David doesn’t just have to take on a vast, implacable foe, but the court of public opinion that is told every day in screaming headlines (“Bubba The Bomber”), and by respected TV talking heads, he is guilty of a capital crime that carries the death penalty. Eastwood clearly bristles at Jewell’s treatment and very much wants us to like him; any shades of grey are therefore treated humorously in what is frequently a warm and sympathetic character study. In the film’s briskly entertaining first 10 minutes, we see Jewell go from eager-to-please office worker to campus cop, fired from the latter job for policing boozy students in a manner that might politely be described as “overzealous”. Obese and awkward, Jewell is a figure of fun but there’s a dignity and decency about him too, his desperate need to be a lawman of any denomination – however minor – oddly touching (“I believe in protecting people”).
Because he always seems to pop up with a Snickers bar when Bryant is hungry, he gives Jewell the nickname “Radar”, which turns out to be somewhat ironic. In the film and TV show M*A*S*H, Gary Burghoff’s character of the same name was so called because he could hear incoming choppers carrying injured soldiers before anyone else. But Jewell fails to sense the world of trouble heading his way until it is right outside his door, baying for his blood. And why would he? He idolises law enforcement, he’s been told he’s a hero on national television.
If he is to quash the accusation levelled against him, Jewell must learn to challenge the very institutions whose values he has spent his life trying to uphold. Initially, he finds it nigh on impossible (“I was raised to respect authority, sir”) and it’s only when he witnesses the terrible toll the affair is taking on his mother that he realises attempts at matey cooperation with the FBI agents (“I’m law enforcement too”) are misguided and counterproductive. Respecting authority and the rule of law is all well and good in a civilised society, libertarian Eastwood seems to suggest, but holding power to account and questioning the motives and behaviour of those who wield it is just as crucial. Especially when that power is turned against those least able to defend themselves.
The director and his screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) clearly have little time for either FBI agent Tom Shaw (Hamm) or newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs (Wilde) and it’s within that palpable disdain the film’s main weaknesses lie. Shaw is an amalgam of several real-life characters and is thoroughly contemptible throughout. He wants Jewell arrested and charged, and is happy to ride roughshod over precedent, evidence and protocol to make it happen. Shaw is frustratingly one dimensional and when his character is finally sent packing towards the end, Hamm’s cartoonish huffing and puffing almost undermines an otherwise powerful moment (it isn’t entirely the actor’s fault; he really doesn’t have a lot of work with).
The film’s detractors have pointed out the scene in which Scruggs appears to trade sex with Shaw for a tip-off about Jewell is wildly inaccurate and impugns the reputation of a reporter no longer around to defend herself (she passed away in 2001). Yes, it’s a shame they had to invent material when the behaviour of both Scruggs and her newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was appalling enough in the first place, but I suspect Eastwood was trying to make a wider point about the grubby, far-too-cosy relationship between the FBI and a compliant media. The only person they were screwing, though, was Jewell.
Those moments in which Jewell and his mother are under siege in their small apartment play out like something from a horror movie, as the pair peep out at the huge scrum of reporters milling around outside like Romero zombies. That feeling of invasion is only compounded when a small army of ATF agents turns up to search the place, pouring through the narrow entrance corridor into the apartment’s main living area and humiliating Bobi by taking away her underwear and Disney videos. These are small, scared people trying to repel something that just can’t be reasoned with. Not the supernatural, but the big clunking fist of the state.
A scene of Bryant and his assistant Nadya (Nina Arianda) pacing out Jewell’s alleged route after supposedly planting the bomb in a backpack is intercut with footage of US sprinter Michael Johnson setting a new world record at the Atlanta Games for the 200m. On the surface, it’s just an inventive way of emphasising how quickly unfit Jewell would have had to have been moving to satisfy the FBI’s flawed “hero bomber” theory. But the clips of Johnson, as well as another featuring Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame, are there for more than visual flourish or scene-setting. Eastwood views Jewell as a truly heroic figure, and placing in a film about him a remarkable athlete and a man who transcended sport to become a US icon is no accident. It illustrates the esteem in which the director believes he should be held, the company in which he belongs.
It’s another DVD/digital-only release for the UK and I can’t say I’m a fan of this current trend. The likes of Wild Rose, Blinded By the Light, Beats, Non-Fiction, Booksmart, The Hunt, Harriet, Ma, and many others have all missed out on a Blu-ray release in this country in the past year or so, but it’s somehow worse when it happens to a film made by a director with Eastwood’s pedigree. In fact, it seems entirely bizarre to me that I can buy a Blu-ray of multiplex landfill like Dolittle or Sonic the Hedgehog, or any number of films by gloriously obscure Eastern European directors, but not an Oscar-nominated, late-career gem from the man who made Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.
There’s only a six-minute featurette – The Real Story of Richard Jewell – which, as the title implies, looks at the jaw-dropping true tale that inspired the film. It features contributions from Eastwood, Hauser, Rockwell, and Wilde, plus the real Bobi Jewell and Watson Bryant. It’s over too soon but I enjoyed the footage of Jewell and Bryant on the film’s set and Hauser’s admission that he was more scared of meeting Richard’s mother than he was Eastwood. What’s genuinely upsetting is that, as the director and Jewell point out, despite having his name cleared, many Americans continue to associate Bobi’s son with the Atlanta attack.
Richard Jewell is available now on Digital Download and on arrives on DVD from June 8
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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