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Eastwood smears familiar foes in Atlanta bombing docudrama

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/12/2019 (290 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Richard Jewell, the title character in this (sort of) fact-based film, is the security guard who discovered a bomb at Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics. First hailed as a lifesaving hero and then vilified as the main suspect, he was railroaded by law enforcement and demonized by the press.

There is a movie to be made about this true-life story of an innocent man convicted in the public sphere on bias rather than evidence. This is not that movie. Director Clint Eastwood undermines his undeniably valid points by his own vilifications, including a shamefully cheap smear of a female reporter.

Eastwood reportedly wanted to make this film years ago, and maybe it would have worked better then. Unfortunately, in the age of Trump, labelling the press as maliciously corrupt and excoriating the FBI for incompetent overreach have taken on new levels of divisiveness. With too many shortcuts and not enough context, Eastwood and scripter Billy Ray take what could have been a sharp critique of institutional failure and turn it into a partisan hack job.

Clint Eastwood and scripter Billy Ray take what could have been a sharp critique of institutional failure and turn it into a partisan hack job. (Claire Folger / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Clint Eastwood and scripter Billy Ray take what could have been a sharp critique of institutional failure and turn it into a partisan hack job. (Claire Folger / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Eastwood has a habit of dividing characters into "real Americans" on one side and bureaucrats, experts and intellectuals (that last category easily identified by their bowties) on the other. Sully, Eastwood’s 2016 take on the pilot who pulled off the Miracle on the Hudson emergency airliner landing, is partly about the man’s heroic competence, but mostly it’s a heavily loaded look at the incident’s aftermath, with Eastwood going after what he sees as pen-pushers, "so-called experts" and government weenies who think aviation needs to be regulated.

That same dynamic is at play here. Security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a regular guy who dreams about getting into law enforcement and reads the penal code at night. Working the crowds at an Olympic entertainment site, he spots a suspicious package. He alerts the bomb squad, establishes a perimeter and helps clear the area, saving hundreds of lives. This is the event Jewell has prepared for all his life.

As he’s being celebrated as a hero across the country, FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) decides Richard fits the profile of domestic terrorist: He’s a frustrated white man, passed over and desperate for attention, like the arsonist who’s also a volunteer firefighter. Shaw leaks his suspicions to reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), and the lives of Jewell and his valiantly protective and loving mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) are turned inside out.

Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw decides Richard Jewell fits the profile of domestic terrorist. (Claire Folger / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw decides Richard Jewell fits the profile of domestic terrorist. (Claire Folger / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Engulfed in a media circus and a legal nightmare, Jewell turns to Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), the only lawyer he knows and likes. Watson has a sticker on his wall that says, "I fear government more than I fear terrorism," so we know Eastwood likes him, too.

Hauser has done interesting supporting work in I, Tonya, but he’s not the usual Hollywood lead, and it’s really satisfying to watch him deliver an increasingly astonishing performance. Jewell initially comes off as an irritating know-it-all, a bit rigid and a little odd, but as events close in, he opens up to show his eagerness and vulnerability, including a heartbreaking need to be validated by the big boys of law enforcement. Hauser does such tremendously sympathetic work you’d like to see him in a better film.

Rockwell and Bates acquit themselves well, as they always do, with crafted and compelling performances. But Hamm, playing a composite character made up of equal parts incompetence and contempt, and Wilde, playing a real-life reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are terrible.

They can’t really help it. They’re just written that way, representing Eastwood’s twin evils of big government and mainstream media. Wilde in particular comes off as just cartoonishly awful. "I’m sooo sorry my hot-ass murders keep bumping your boring shit off the front page," she crows to a group of female co-workers in her opening scene. Along with playing into the tired trope of the professional woman as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking bitch, she’s yet another female journo character who sleeps with sources for information.

Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) initially comes off as an irritating know-it-all, a bit rigid and a little odd, but as events close in, he opens up to show his eagerness and vulnerability. (Claire Folger / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) initially comes off as an irritating know-it-all, a bit rigid and a little odd, but as events close in, he opens up to show his eagerness and vulnerability. (Claire Folger / Warner Bros. Pictures)

You might agree or disagree with Eastwood’s right-wing point of view — and actually lots of left-wingers share his distrust of the FBI. The problem here is that his ideology ends up distorting the storyline and the characters. Eastwood might be known for his taut, economic storytelling, but with Richard Jewell he’s turned in a flat and flabby movie.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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