Richard Jewell (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Richard Jewell is an easy target: he is fat, a bit weird at times, and he still lives with his mother despite being fully grown and financially independent. And so when he, while working as a security guard, finds a bomb and alerts the proper authorities during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, his status of being a hero is short-lived. Jewell is falsely accused and vilified as a hero bomber, especially given his questionable track record, like pulling over drivers from the road even though it goes beyond his role as campus security and breaking into students’ dormitories for drinking and threatening them should they fail to comply.
The beauty of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is that it is a condemnation of the FBI, the media, and, perhaps most importantly, power worship. The mess—the tragedy—that is Jewell’s character assassination results not because of one factor but a network of conflicting aims and motivations. The FBI feels pressure from the nation to capture the bomber. Since they have no strong lead, they latch onto the lowest hanging fruit and construct a story from there. (It didn’t help that an FBI agent was assigned to work at the event but failed to detect that there was something wrong until it was too late.) Speaking of stories, the media is always hungry for the next big one, the story that will sell the most papers, get the most viewers, generate the most gossip and speculation.
And speaking of viewers, in a way, Jewell wishes to be viewed or seen, be regarded as important for performing a job the best he can. His goal is to become a cop someday. It sure beats being seen as just another dumb, oily-faced fat guy who delivers mail in the office. Jewell is a type of man who puts law enforcement on such a high pedestal that when he himself becomes the prime target of investigation, he gives off the impression that he does not understand the severity of what he is being accused of and what will happen to him should the FBI get their way of arresting and convicting the wrong man. He wants to help them when he should be helping himself.
This is the central drama of Eastwood’s story. It is told in a compelling way. The events presented—nearly every single one told with clarity and precision—incite frustration and anger but it is not without amusing human moments, like Jewell’s relationship with his Snickers-loving friend and lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell—brilliant as usual). Even before Jewell is accused of a crime he did not commit, we come to understand how his job and personal histories, on top of his physicality and personality quirks, can be used to weaponize, to create a monster out of someone who simply wishes to do the right thing.
The film is supported by strong performers, particularly by Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Kathy Bates as Barbara Jewell, the silently suffering mother. There are heartbreaking moments of the son and his mother just sitting in the apartment in loud silence as the buzzing of the rabid media can be heard from outside. We feel their thoughts racing, their helplessness, the tension in their bodies. How can they possibly win against the U.S. government and the media machine? Who can they trust when even Richard’s friends and colleagues agree to wear a wire so that the FBI can listen in on their private conversations? When will it all be over?
I wished the picture had fewer “Hollywood” moments. For instance, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a highly driven journalist (translation: bitch—which I thought was heavy-handed and at times inappropriate) who works for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, somehow having broken into Bryant’s vehicle despite the car being surrounded by reporters and cameramen. Or when characters, who are supposedly intelligent, do basic investigation so late in the film, such as covering the distance and noting how long it takes to walk from where the bomb was left to the payphone that actual perpetrator used to call 911. Or when a character, who has a big role in amplifying the false accusation, cries during a moving speech. These, and others like it, ring false in movie that is absolutely worth seeing.