#6 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
There’s been something interesting evolving through Clint Eastwood’s later career in terms of his view of authority. Going all the way back to Dirty Harry, he was looking at a series of institutions that were inept and maybe corrupt, but never malicious. Even Little Bill in Unforgiven was trying to maintain peace with violent means. However, by the 2010s with films like Sully where the government (the NTSB in that case) were becoming outright antagonistic towards the individual, especially those who could be considered heroes. With Richard Jewell, the story of the security guard who found the bomb in Centennial Park during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Eastwood found what might have been the most perfect real life example to dramatize.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a heavyset young man with dreams of joining the police to do his part in the pursuit of law and order. He’s not the smartest guy, and he’s far from the fittest. However, his enthusiasm knows few bounds, which gets him into trouble with his decreasingly important positions, ending with a security guard at a small college where he gets fired for over-exuberance in the pursuit of his duties. Able to get a job working security at Centennial Park, he does what he can to exert his own authority over the rambunctious sort attending the musical acts while cozying up to the real police officers. One night on duty, he discovers a suspicious backpack left next to the AV tower, calls attention to it, and is able to start the process of moving people away to minimize the damage to two fatalities and about a hundred wounded. He’s instantly hailed as a hero, and that’s where things go wrong.
Eastwood was nearly ninety years old when he made this film, and over his time he’d watched his country change drastically from his early days during the Great Depression through the Second World War and into the social revolutions of the 1960s. It was the fallout from the latter that led to Dirty Harry, and Eastwood obviously saw a system in collapse. The institutions that were designed to protect and serve (like the San Francisco police force) were becoming less willing and able to do their jobs, and by the 2010s he’d obviously changed his viewpoint on what was going on as times had evolved. No longer were the institutions willing to protect and serve the innocent, they were more concerned with targeting the extraordinary. His antagonists in this later phase never had the greatest depth, but it’s here in Richard Jewell where they get serious screentime. The two are journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) and FBI Agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm).
I have some minor problems with the Kathy Scruggs character but not the same as just about anyone else. I find it hilarious that people object to the idea of her selling her body for a story but not her being an amoral monster who borderline celebrates at the bombing because she got a great story. No, my problem is her very short change of heart near the end. It doesn’t fit her character, and that character that Wilde creates is a monster, willing to step on anyone to get a story. She is the modern, female version of Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder‘s Ace in the Hole. Shaw is the larger threat, though. Representing the federal government, the Department of Justice, and the FBI, he sets out to prove Jewell’s guilt based on little more than a gut feeling and a profile. He really is the ugly other side to the coin that was Harry Callahan: willing to do anything to get his man, even if the man isn’t the right one.
The investigation goes public through a leak from Shaw to Scruggs, and a media firestorm erupts as everyone in the country zeroes in on Jewell. This is destructive to Jewell’s mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), a simple woman who only wants the best for her son, and it forces Jewell to reach out to the only lawyer who ever treated him with any kindness, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who becomes his staunch defender in the face of overbearing pressure in both directions. Jewell’s life is completely turned upside down, including a warranted search of the apartment he shares with his mother that even takes away her undergarments. It’s humiliating, made all the worse by the fact that Jewell may be an awkward guy, but he’s ultimately innocent. There’s a line of dialogue that gets repeated a couple of times that recalls dialogue from Eastwood’s earlier Changeling about how all of the time misspent by the department could be used looking for the real culprit. This inability to see beyond their prejudices and profiles dragged Jewell through the mud for months, and the people who did it, in particular Shaw, don’t care if they’re wrong or not. This is also why Scruggs’ last second (and very briefly seen) regret at what she’s done rings hollow to me.
The film is anchored wonderfully by Hauser who brings such an innocent wide-eyed desire to please those he looks up to who also want to destroy him, making us believe in him as the exact kind of guy that the larger forces of the country would feel themselves free to destroy, even while he can’t really show his anger at it all. There’s a great scene where he finally breaks out to Bryant about how angry he actually is, letting loose the inner turmoil that’s been just under the surface. Rockwell is wonderful as Bryant as well. Somewhat sarcastic but wholly committed to his client and his travails, he’s a great counter to Hamm in particular as Shaw, a smarmy, unprincipled a-hole who only cares about getting his man, even if his man isn’t the man. Wilde has a ball as Scruggs, playing up her completely amoral tendencies and party-girl persona.
Eastwood manages the production with his normal professionalism, but he also brings a similar energy in spots to what he did with American Sniper, especially a late-stage dream from Jewell where he throws himself on the bomb rather than direct people away. It’s a story that obviously fits really well in with Eastwood’s later, further cynical look at the agreement between the American people and its government that aligns comfortably with films like Changeling and Sully. It’s a triumph of his late career with only one wrong note. Otherwise, it’s a great film that, maybe, should have been his last.
5 thoughts on “Richard Jewell”
This is maybe the most important movie of Clint’s Twilight phase. It’s less of a crowd pleaser compared to Grand Torinio (though the ending of Grand Torinio didn’t actually please me), however the message is greater.
The government is not here to help you or protect you. To quote another movie: ‘If you’re not a cop, you’re Little People.’ ‘and Little People get stepped on’. This movie is the illustration of that Blade Runner quote. Richard Jewel is a Little Person and he got stepped on.
I concur and endorse your rumination on Clint’s evolution of Authority. What is shocking perhaps is that Clint Eastwood is the man putting these movies out there. Nobody else is, nobody else wants to, so far as I can tell. And nobody is delivering his messages with the craft and skill Clint did.
And yeah, Kathy’s regret is the least believable part of the story. John Hamm sure is good at playing a scumbag, isn’t he? I hope he’s acting. He also plays a marginally competent thug in Top Gun: Maverick…and the less said about ‘Call Me By Your Name’, the better.
This isn’t a fun movie or a happy one, so not one I plan on revisiting again probably, but it’s an important one.
This movie just gets into my mental space and doesn’t really let go. The little guy who just wants to do good, the system that actively punishes him for it, and just the general quality craft of it all that Eastwood developed over decades. It’s one of those movies that may not be much fun, but I could watch over and over again.
Scrap the roughly 30 seconds of Kathy realizing she’s wrong, and I put this movie in the top 3 of Eastwood’s career. Since it’s there, it falls a bit lower.
He comes down hard on the FBI, or at least the FBI did things that make it easy to paint them in a bad light. I was thinking while watching this to never talk to the FBI, they are not your friend. (not that I do anything that would ever bring the FBI to my doorstep)
They don’t even turn on a recorder in the interview, because they were just going to use notes written by the FBI agent with an ax to grind to base any perjury traps on.