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The People vs. Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood turns the saga of the Atlanta bombing suspect into a cautionary tale for an already paranoid age.

Claire Folger/Courtesy of Warner Brothers

It’s my own fault that I could not, until recently, recall the name of the person who planted a bomb in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics; it’s also my own fault that I couldn’t say whether that case had been solved. It has: The bomber was Eric Rudolph, and if I ever knew that he had also planted bombs at a lesbian bar and two abortion clinics (I hardly need to spell out his motives), I had forgotten. But I remembered the name Richard Jewell. Whose fault is that?

Jewell was the Olympics security guard who spotted Rudolph’s device, cleared the area, and alerted the authorities. He was hailed as a hero, until the FBI identified him as a possible suspect in the case. He was cleared after a few months, but no matter: Jewell was convicted in the court of public opinion. He died 11 years later, at only 44. Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell dramatizes these events and is less a biopic than a morality tale. Let’s set aside, for now, the question of what the moral is.

Eastwood’s film opens with crucial backstory: While working as a supply clerk at the Small Business Administration, Jewell met Watson Bryant, a lawyer who would later enter private practice and represent Jewell when he was under investigation. Paul Walter Hauser, as the titular character, lumbers onto screen, physically commanding if almost boyishly deferential to Bryant, played with irritating bombast by Sam Rockwell.

That the polished lawyer and the guy who stocked the office supplies would bond feels like artistic flourish, but it’s not (Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair story, a source text for the film, is worth reading). It’s one of many true details in a saga that you’d be forgiven for thinking was Hollywood invention. Others include Jewell’s long-standing interest in law enforcement, his personal collection of guns, his blank demeanor. He sounds like our idea of the kind of guy who would plant a bomb. Maybe that idea needs revising.

Eastwood is deft at the exposition—Jewell and Bryant’s meet-cute, then the introductions of the principal FBI agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and the local reporter on the story, the late Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). He’s worked in the business for more than half a century; Eastwood knows what he’s doing. You’re tense watching the crowd sequences and not just because you’re waiting for the bomb to go off. You’re bearing witness to a more innocent America—citizens joyously dancing the Macarena, documenting the moment on their digital cameras. There’s that particular revulsion of revisiting the fashions of the past (not yet distant enough to seem retro and chic) and the pathos of realizing that, though this all happened quite recently, it feels like ancient history. That’s how good Eastwood is: He’s selling us a vision of an ideal past, perhaps arguing that this was the moment it all went wrong. It’s hogwash, but it’s well done.

If you evaluate performance by the suspension of disbelief, Hauser’s is extraordinary. He’s physically huge, yet somehow he shrinks; his Southern accent is rich and slow, punctuated by “Sir” or “Officer” in a way that sounds wholly natural. As Jewell’s mother, Bobi, Kathy Bates is equally compelling. Eastwood would not make a film that condescended to a suburban woman proud of her hero son. But to play it too noble would also be an insult; Bates gives her performance dignity and humanity but also frustration and pain.

The principal requirement for most film actors is just beauty. Hamm is absurdly handsome as always, and meant to embody the villainy of the state. He can’t do it. Hamm’s Shaw and his fellow agent Bennett (Ian Gomez) aren’t tasked with anything more interesting than being evil, but no one involved in this project has read Arendt. This pretend FBI is manipulative and power-mad, missing altogether what’s most frightening—the banality of bureaucracy.

Wilde is gorgeous and charged with representing the amorality of the media. She can’t do it, either, though the script, by Billy Ray, shares the blame. Wilde tries to play Scruggs with bad-girl swagger but seems merely deranged. The movie shows the reporter promising to sleep with Hamm’s Shaw in exchange for the tip that the FBI is investigating Jewell. It’s deeply misogynist and maybe slander, and derails the film’s ability to make a (salient) point about the media’s role in messing up contemporary American life.

Richard Jewell has rightly been condemned for its portrayal of Scruggs. It’s a startling irony—the film that aims to show the ways in which real people should not trust the media is itself a media product that unfairly treats a real person. Kathy Scruggs isn’t alive to sue the studio, but her former employer might do just that.

The movie capably dramatizes the media circus and the FBI’s attempts to seduce and trap Jewell. You will worry about Richard Jewell because Hauser is that good an actor. But the real saga lacks dramatic shape—the FBI maintained its investigation for several weeks, then quietly ended it, then a few years later apprehended Rudolph—and the movie reflects this: It’s exhilarating, then tense, then nothing really happens, and it concludes. Speaking of that aforementioned moral of the story: The script actually has a character say, with reverent fear, that the United States government and the media are “the most powerful forces in the world.”

So many of Eastwood’s films look and sound perfect but cannot rise because they’re so leaden with lesson. It’s not even that I find his politics distasteful—though I do!—it’s that his inability to be subtle betrays his lack of trust in the audience. Of course, Eastwood is a creature of Hollywood—both one of its creators and one of its creations—so it would be foolish to expect otherwise. Richard Jewell is an accomplishment in reminding us that the man was, after all, a hero. The film is a failure in making any larger point.

Eastwood’s gloss on the story of Richard Jewell has a quasi-paranoid libertarianism—you can’t trust what you read in the papers, and you can’t trust the agents of the state. It looks back at 1996 but at heart yearns for an era that never actually existed. I’m glad Jewell was given the honor of Hauser’s performance, but that’s another irony, isn’t it? Once again, fiction proves more compelling than fact.