Richard Jewell did not perform well at the box office this weekend. It’s Clint Eastwood’s “worst opening in four decades”. The film is about Richard Jewell, the man wrongfully accused of the Centennial Park bombing during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and the latest white male hero trumpeted by Eastwood. It jumps off from Marie Brenner’s stellar Vanity Fair profile of Jewell, with a script written by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and starring Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) as the title character. It’s not a total loss as a film, particularly in regards to the acting, but Eastwood oversimplifies the story into a tale of a cop-loving good ol’ boy and the corrupt Feds and vicious press who hound and defame him. By rendering Jewell’s story so black and white, Eastwood not only does a disservice to Jewell, and reporter Kathy Scruggs (we’ll get to that), but he misunderstands what makes the Jewell case so fascinating. It’s not that a noble white man was persecuted, what stands out about the Jewell case is the amalgam of outside forces that coalesced at the exact wrong moment and produced a hideous media spectacle.
Richard Jewell begins with a brief prologue showing the first meeting between Richard and attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who shows some appreciation for Richard’s attention to detail. From the early portion of the film, we learn that Richard is detail-oriented, and also a stickler to the rules, so much so, he gets fired from a campus police job for harassing students. Honestly, right up until his final climactic monologue, Richard Jewell does little to dispel the image of Richard as a rule-loving narc who was too simple to grasp the nuance needed to be an effective officer of the law. This is nothing to do with Paul Walter Hauser’s performance, which is very good, it’s just that the film plays right into the narrative of Richard as a mama’s boy weirdo without challenging it in any meaningful way.
The best sequence in the film is the bombing, which captures Jewell’s genuine desire to help people, his frustration at not being taken seriously, his attention to his surroundings, and the chaos and devastation of such an attack. Eastwood can still put together an effective action sequence, and the park bombing is genuinely scary. Had the rest of Richard Jewell lived up to this scene, it would really be something. But Eastwood quickly goes whole hog on the idea that the FBI was deliberately corrupt (and not just desperate and out of their depth), and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, particularly local crime reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), deliberately exploitative (and not overwhelmed by terrible editorial decisions).
Scruggs comes off the worst, as the film really does insinuate that she trades sex for scoops. Scruggs, who is not here to defend herself, was by all accounts a colorful and forceful personality, but her peers are adamant she did not engage in that kind of behavior. What’s especially infuriating about this story beat is not just perpetuating the stereotype of the female reporter who sleeps around for stories, it’s that it obscures an actual problem with the AJC at that time, which was a new editorial policy meant to combat a drain on readership posed by the internet. The Jewell case marks one of the first instances of traditional journalism struggling with new media paradigms, and the pressure of a newspaper to compete with blogs for readers. That is fascinating, especially as most people probably don’t think of the Jewell case in those terms, and it is much more relevant to issues in journalism that we still see today than slut-shaming a brassy reporter.
Richard Jewell does little to illuminate this story and why we should care about it today. It’s a decent actor showcase, particularly for Hauser, Rockwell, and Kathy Bates, who stars as Richard’s mother, Bobbi. But it is otherwise exactly the movie you think Eastwood will make, sacrificing nuance and a chance to examine the outside forces at play in order to make cheap shots on the FBI and the press (gee, why would Eastwood be looking to discredit these institutions right now?). The FBI does not deserve our sympathy, but Kathy Scruggs definitely doesn’t deserve her treatment in this film. It’s exactly the kind of hit piece the film is railing against. Richard Jewell didn’t deserve to have his name dragged through the mud, and neither does Kathy Scruggs.