REVIEW: Richard Jewell (2019)

Still Image Richard Jewell
‘Richard Jewell,’ Still Image — Photo: Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Directed by Clint Eastwood — Screenplay by Billy Ray.

There is a lot to say when it comes to Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, which is a biopic about the security guard who discovered a bomb during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, then alerted authorities, and was later wrongly accused of having planted it. While the film is not without problems, on the whole, I thought that Clint Eastwood’s 2019 picture was a success. This is a heartbreaking and infuriating film about the investigation into the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and the media circus and harsh media trial that followed as a result of an FBI leak, and at the center of the film is a breakthrough performance that I don’t think got the praise it deserved.

As I have already indicated, I like this film. So there are obviously a lot of good things to say about this movie, but before I do that I also want to first acknowledge its faults. Because I have a significant problem with the way that Olivia Wilde’s character — who was based on a real person — was written. Firstly, I think that the film essentially vilifies journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde’s character). Specifically, I think that the character is written in a cruel and sexist way. It is true that she has two or three scenes wherein she realizes her mistakes or confronts Jon Hamm’s FBI agent character, but I think it is a huge problem with the film that it includes a subplot involving a real person that the film then goes out of its way to treat in a disrespectful manner. Eastwood, or writer Billy Ray, ought to have improved this subplot or, instead, excluded the real name of the journalist that Olivia Wilde, who gives an unremarkable performance in the thankless role, was asked to portray.

Furthermore, I think it is difficult to separate the film from the time in which it was released. Whenever Eastwood’s film puts the spotlight on the media or journalists, it is in a manner that can be interpreted as a deliberate reaction to the current fake news-era, which is defined by politicians and the like casting doubt on legitimate news and the journalists and papers that report them. While it is true that the film is about a situation in which the media wrongly damaged a man’s reputation, the film can also be read as an attempt to regurgitate and legitimize the false doubts of the fake news-era, which I think is quite frustrating since I must reiterate that I think there is a lot to like about this movie.

I have already commented on Wilde’s character, the way she was written, and the actresses’ performance, but I also want to say that those problems do not completely ruin what is an otherwise affecting biopic about hero worship and character assassinations. Actually, the thing that worked best for me was the strength of the performances given by the main cast, even though Wilde’s character left a lot to be desired. Though his character is also woefully underwritten, Jon Hamm does a fine job of channeling the same priggish and belittling behavior that we saw from him in Ben Affleck’s The Town, which he is very good in.

Both Kathy Bates and, in particular, Sam Rockwell deliver genuinely affecting performances as the people who have the titular character’s back. The combination of Bates, Rockwell, and the breakthrough performance of Paul Walter Hauser, honestly, brought tears to my eyes. Ray, Eastwood, and Hauser make the titular character, who is more complicated than the trailers indicate (the film does indicate that he has previously behaved unacceptably as a ‘member of law enforcement.’), incredibly relatable. You feel like you know people like him. And it is heartbreaking to see people take advantage of him and his dreams (his childhood dream of becoming a police officer is exploited by the FBI agents). Hauser has quietly made his presence known via smaller supporting roles in films such as I, Tonya and BlackKklansman, but there can be no doubt that this is him at his finest, and I hope to see him in equally great roles down the line.

I think it is very interesting that Clint Eastwood, the director and former leading man, has, over the course of the last decade, been adamant about telling stories about real individuals often defined by their acts of heroism, with American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, and now Richard Jewell. These films don’t always work as intended, with The 15:17 to Paris being a notable low point for the Hollywood legend, but, for the most part, Eastwood’s latest film succeeds in telling the story of a real-life hero whose moment in the spotlight was followed by cruel attempts to wreck his life. However, it must be said that its characterization of the media and, in particular, late journalist Kathy Scruggs is seriously problematic.

7.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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