Clint Eastwood is hit or miss for me as a filmmaker lately. In 2018 he released two of my least favorite films of the decade, “The 15:17 to Paris” and “The Mule”. So, when his sole 2019 offering “Richard Jewell” debuted I was a little cautious. So cautious in fact that I waited several weeks to even give it a chance but only after several people gave me their own opinions on the film did I feel it was worth my time. Based on the dramatic 1996 vilification of its titular character, played by Paul Walter Hauser, who saved countless lives through his quick action during the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, the film showcases how the FBI and media tried to force Jewell into being convicted of the bombing creating a classic case of what is now known as “trial by media”. “Richard Jewell” attempts to capture the dramatic elements of its subject while also touching on relevant themes that have bled into modern day. Was this film worth my time after all that hesitation? Well let’s take a look in my review of “Richard Jewell”.
A lot of people have come to me calling this one of Clint Eastwood’s all-time best movies and a story that needs to be experienced, but honestly that’s not entirely true from my perspective. “Richard Jewell” is not a bad movie per say, but it’s not one of Eastwood’s best nor is it a story I think a lot of people will be all that interested in. Jewell, who passed away in 2007, would probably have been a better subject for a movie a decade ago when his tale was a bit more relevant to society and, as such, for me personally it was hard to really invest in the story. Eastwood does try to focus on elements that make Richard Jewell’s conflict more relevant to today’s audience but there’s not enough here to make it interesting beyond the idea that it happened. Honestly the bombing itself is a pretty gripping scene but we see this so much on film and even live television today that I think we’ve honestly become numb to it all by now, which in itself is not Eastwood’s fault and is more a tragic result of the world we live in, but the fact of the matter is that Jewell’s story isn’t really that gripping unless you look at it from the perspective that Eastwood clearly embraced, one that showcases the flaws in society that persist even today.
Eastwood is a notable right-wing supporter. There’s nothing wrong with that in my book but just as many lift-wing liberal filmmakers often let their beliefs bleed into their work Eastwood also has a tendency to do so in his movies, especially recently. “Richard Jewell” is perhaps the best example of that in his recent filmography. It is worth noting however that the movie was produced by normally left-leaning actor Leonardo DiCaprio who previously had been expected to star in the film. Regardless, in order to try and make Jewell’s worthy story relevant to modern viewers Eastwood puts a heavy focus on the media’s mistreatment of Jewell and while this is obviously a very important part of the narrative the way its handled comes off as a clear attack on modern media for their own sins against modern “heroes” with absolutely no attempt to redeem the media or humanizing those who sought to destroy Jewell’s reputation. Eastwood clearly had a message to send using Jewell’s story as the platform: the media and the establishment don’t care about you or the truth. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film didn’t work as hard to demonize the media as the media did to demonize Jewell himself. One of the film’s most controversial liberties taken is showcasing the lead journalist on the case, Kathy Scruggs played by Olivia Wilde, as having had sex to gain information from the FBI to crucify Jewell. Only later does she feel bad for her actions but it’s such a brief and out of left field turn for her character the intention feels clear, she’s a journalist so she’s the bad guy. The lead FBI agent, played by Jon Hamm, at first targets Jewell because he fits the bill for the normal suspects of such bombings but instead of having him ever reconsider his position the movie just makes him a crass, unforgiving FBI agent without a conscience and no reason whatsoever to suspect Jewell other than stereotypes.
Now that’s not to say the movie doesn’t have noble intentions. It really does. “Fake News” as it’s become know and the “trial by media” concept where individuals are made enemies of the people for the sake of the story and not the truth are genuine problems in society and I have to commend Eastwood for trying to capture these ideas in a story based on a real life event. But I would’ve appreciated more subtlety, more layers even to how this all played out. There are plenty of complexities to this narrative that are ignored for the sake of focusing purely on Richard Jewell’s strife and while the media and law enforcement surely don’t deserve get-out-of-jail-free cards for their roles in Jewell’s mistreatment, handling the material more delicately could have made this story more interesting and engaging. It is important for me to note that I do respect that the story gives Jewell the attention he deserves. His character, and all his flaws, are well defined including his respect for authority and how his own ambitions proved to be a weakness that only made things worse for him as he worked to clear his name. Paul Walter Hauser does a great job with his character and even turns in some emotionally driven moments that help this film rise above its low points. The core of this story is Jewell’s struggle and thankfully it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Also, a credit to Kathy Bates whose take on Jewell’s mother has earned her a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination.
While a lot of people I know have loved this movie, for me it’s middle of the road. It says what it needs to say but lacks much subtlety or careful storytelling to get the job done. Eastwood has been much better than this and has said more daring things with more tact and focus than this movie offers. Not to mention the story itself is nothing too interesting despite its worthy subject and might suffer simply from a lack of proper timing. With that said I do believe the trial by media concept is a deserving criticism of society. I’d like to see more movies challenge that idea and remind us, as “Richard Jewell” tries to do, that people are innocent until proven guilty and that proper handling of stories by the media is essential to perception in society. However just as these outlets need to consider all angles of a scenario in order to get the truth across so too do movies like this and “Richard Jewell” sadly leaves a lot of details out of the fold. I’m reminded of another movie about an American hero whose name was dragged through the mud called “Sully” that Eastwood also directed and that film was handled with much more respect to all angles of the narrative in my opinion, so I know Eastwood can do better. This is likely one of those movies that maybe I just didn’t get the same way others did, but in the end it’s my opinion this blog focuses on and I just see “Richard Jewell” as another recent middle-of-the-road option in Eastwood’s otherwise impressive filmography.