'Richard Jewell' takes Eastwood's libertarian ethos to questionable ends
Sometime soon, there will be a class, book or dissertation parsing the era of late period Clint Eastwood, his cinematic fixation in the latter half of the 2010s on ripped-from-the-headlines white male American exceptionalism. The notoriously speedy auteur, now 89, has churned out these films every two years starting in 2014, with the smash hit "American Sniper." He's taken on the "Miracle on the Hudson" with 2016's "Sully" and experimented with nonprofessional actors in the ghastly "The 15:17 to Paris," about American tourists thwarting a terrorist attack on a train to France. Eastwood himself starred in "The Mule" as an elderly man who gets himself into interstate drug transportation.
The thematic throughline of the films is one of individualism, heroics or success attained in spite of or against powerful outside forces and systems of control. It's a deeply libertarian ethos, which isn't surprising coming from the conservative cowboy star who might be best known as "Dirty Harry."
Now he's made "Richard Jewell," about the Atlanta security guard who discovered a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was hailed as a hero before he was heavily scrutinized in the media as a suspect. It's a far superior film to the incompetent and confounding "15:17 to Paris" and "The Mule," but it's only interesting when viewed as a part of this oeuvre.
Likable lunk Paul Walter Hauser stars as Jewell, an overeager law enforcement-obsessed nerd who hasn't been able to succeed in his chosen field and is only guilty of trying too hard. Eastwood could not have made the film without Hauser, who embodies a kind of innocent naivete that allows us to sympathize with him in a narrative crafted by Eastwood and writer Billy Ray. It streamlines the messy, ugly case into a morally digestible tale of good guys (well-meaning Southern boys) and bad guys (the media and also the entire government).
In 2005, anti-abortion and anti-gay domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph confessed to the Centennial Park bombing, which claimed one life and injured 100 others, but Ray and Eastwood do not make him the bad guy in "Richard Jewell." They instead villainize the media, specifically, a reporter for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who deserves her own redemptive film after the savage slander that is this portrayal.
Ray and Eastwood lean into the ugly stereotype that female journalists are drunken floozies who get their tips through sex. Kathy seduces the information out of Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) that the FBI (tipped off by a college dean) is investigating Jewell. Hungry for a scoop, she insists the paper run the story, and suddenly Richard and his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), are under the aggressive spotlight of shouting reporters and flashbulbs, all while the FBI gaslights the trusting Richard into implicating himself.
Eastwood drives home the anti-media narrative in a culminating sequence at a news conference where Bobi cries at a podium while cameras flash menacingly and Kathy weeps at her own shame (even though the story she wrote was true).
Despite some interesting performances from Hauser, Bates and Sam Rockwell as Jewell's lawyer, the whole film just makes you wonder what message Eastwood might be trying to impart, with this film, in 2019, that essentially condemns the act of suspecting and investigating a young white man of domestic terrorism. When journalists are under physical and philosophical threat more than they ever have been, why paint them to be the true scourge and not the actual terrorist, Eric Rudolph, who went on to claim more victims and who is completely absent from the film? No amount of Eastwood nostalgia can make the questionable message he tries to sell in "Richard Jewell" easier to accept.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images.