Can you recall who was responsible for 1996’s Centennial Olympic Park bombing? Three days after the incident, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (accurately) reported that Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered a backpack containing three pipe bombs and tipped the police, sparing the lives of innumerable concertgoers, had become the FBI’s main suspect. But was it right to run the story? Evidently, CNN had uncovered the same information (that Jewell was being investigated) but chose to wait. Once the AJC ran it, the news spread fast, turning Jewell from a hero to a villain in the public’s eyes.
Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” intends to clear the man’s name once and for all. But “Richard Jewell” is a movie, and movies are notoriously inaccurate, taking what’s euphemistically referred to as “dramatic license” to make stories more entertaining. In this case, at a time when politicians have stoked public distrust of news media, and when news media have punched back by holding politicians to even stricter standards of truthfulness, does anybody want to hear what the “Hollywood elites” have to say about Richard Jewell?
The answer: A good story is a good story, and Eastwood knows how to tell a good story. With “Richard Jewell,” he and screenwriter Billy Ray — drawing from the Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” by Marie Brenner — go about it in a broad and often too-simplistic sort of way, treating the “hero bomber” (played by Paul Walter Hauser in his first starring role) as a lovable loser. Still, the result is undeniably compelling, a kind of modern-day “Ace in the Hole” and a populist reflection of the public’s disdain for journalists and government alike, as told by a filmmaker (and let’s not forget: former mayor of Carmel, Calif.) with his finger on the pulse.
Without a major movie star in the lead, “Richard Jewell” will likely land in the $35 million range, like disappointments “J. Edgar” and “The 15:17 to Paris” before it, rather than the nine-digit territory of far-better biopics “Sully” and “American Sniper,” though all five projects demonstrate a remarkable output for a director operating well into his 80s. Even the bad movies (and when Eastwood is bad, he’s awful) reflect a consistency of focus. He’s an underdog’s director, skeptical of the system, firmly on the side of the falsely accused and completely unpretentious in his delivery.
Say what you will about Eastwood’s performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention (when he scolded Obama via an empty chair next to him onstage), but “Richard Jewell” does not come across as an old, out-of-touch white guy venting his frustrations with a specific political party. Instead, it reflects a thoughtful citizen wondering how we got to this point. Retracing Eastwood’s career as filmmaker, he clearly abhors nothing more than the abuse of power. Here, the director challenges two of the most powerful institutions in modern society, seizing on an especially disgraceful moment when the pressures on law enforcement (to get its man) and the pressures on news organizations (to get the scoop) ruined the reputation of an “innocent guy” (as director Michael Moore identified him in “The Big One”).
It has often been said that one’s reputation is determined not by one’s actions but by others’ perceptions. In Jewell’s case, extrapolating from the fact the FBI was investigating him, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided that he fit a certain profile: “This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police ‘wanna-be’ who seeks to become a hero,” wrote AJC reporters Kathy Scruggs (played here by Olivia Wilde as an aggressive, unethical newshound) and Ron Martz (David Shae, who barely registers as a character). But do “lone bombers” fitting that description really exist?
“Richard Jewell” isn’t terribly generous to any of its characters, and though the filmmakers believe their protagonist to be innocent, as played by Hauser (a tubby character actor recently seen as a racist ignoramus in “BlacKkKlansman” and a bumbling bodyguard in “I, Tonya”), he comes off as a thickheaded goober, a glorified Paul Blart type. In 1996, while working for campus police at Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga., he was reprimanded for pulling cars over on the highway. After being dismissed from that job, he took his above-and-beyond enthusiasm to his next gig, working as a security guard for the AT&T Pavilion at the Summer Olympics, where the live-at-home schlub saw himself as a deputy member of law enforcement.
Sure, it’s pathetic to watch Jewell buddying up to the real cops, but that desperate everything-to-prove attitude of his is presumably what saved lives when he stumbled on a suspicious package near the sound-and-light tower just after midnight on July 27. The FBI was on the scene, but agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm, playing that handsome-on-the-outside, sordid-underneath dynamic that suited him so well in “Mad Men”) was distracted, flirting with Scruggs, working her contacts — and her sex appeal, the movie implies — for a lead.
As in “Sully,” when Eastwood showed the crash landing multiple times from various perspectives, the bomb goes off once, only to echo later in Jewell’s dreams and in flashback — a surefire way to juice up a story that’s mostly about procedure from the incident on out. Early in his professional career, Jewell made friends with an eccentric attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), and he’s the one Jewell calls when the FBI brings him in for questioning.
Bryant is a Libertarian, as indicated by the “I fear government more than I fear terrorism” sign in his office, and Jewell’s case ignites a righteous fire in him, redeeming his sad solo law practice. In one scene, intercut with footage of Michael Johnson breaking the 200-meter speed record at the 1996 Olympics, Eastwood shows Bryant timing the walk between the bomb site and the pay phone where an anonymous 911 call was placed — a fancy bit of filmmaking meant to underscore Jewell’s innocence.
Richard, who lives at home with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), just wants to be helpful, volunteering to assist in any way he can the FBI agents who search his home, while reporters from national news agencies camp out in the parking lot. Throughout the entire ordeal, Jewell remains polite and accommodating, which makes him look even more foolish at times. Supporting actors Wilde, Hamm, Bates and Rockwell play their roles at the brink of caricature, and yet, under Eastwood’s aegis, they don’t cross into outright parody.
The director is known for tossing less experienced actors in with the professionals — as in “The 15:17 to Paris,” where the trio who thwarted a terrorist attack played themselves, badly. In “Richard Jewell,” it works brilliantly, allowing Hauser to shine in a role movie star Jonah Hill once intended to play (he remains involved as a producer).
The real Jewell died in 2007 — a small fortune richer after making settlements in libel cases with NBC, the New York Post and his former Piedmont employers — which makes it possible for Hauser to interpret him as he pleases. The actor projects a goofy, good-natured bewilderment, off which Rockwell plays the indignant justice seeker. Wilde’s former colleagues have raised objections about how she is portrayed, especially the suggestion that she slept with an FBI agent to get the story, and it’s a thankless part, rendered ridiculous during a press conference in which she sobs in the background while Bobi comes to her son’s defense.
So, to return to the original question, who was the individual responsible for the bombing? Six years after Jewell was interrogated, the FBI finally caught the culprit, a man named Eric Rudolph, who conducted at least three other bombings (of a lesbian bar and two abortion clinics) subsequent to Centennial Park. Meanwhile, in the decades since, the trial-by-media phenomenon has only gotten worse, and our justice system seems all the more fallible. Maybe Eastwood is right to show Jewell as some kind of guinea pig. Just don’t assume that the movie’s any more accurate than the characters it critiques.