Saviour or culprit, witness or suspect, ‘saint or savage’: this is the story of Richard Jewell, an unlikely hero belittled and besmirched by America.
In his twilight years, Clint Eastwood has forged a sturdy (and remarkably steady) output of odes to the struggling ‘Murican everyman, from Sully to American Sniper, and even the maligned The 15:17 To Paris.
Plight Of The White Male Syndrome is a recurring fixture – so too is respect and admiration. However, above all else, his latest modern history lesson is built on fire – burning with disillusionment and fury at his country.
It’s 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia, the year of the Summer Olympics. To celebrate it kicking off, thousands have gathered to watch Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, spend time with friends and family and, apparently, dance to the Macarena. Then, a 911 dispatcher picks up a call. ‘There’s a bomb in Centennial Park, you have 30 minutes’ – 10 words from a payphone, one impending explosion.
Amidst the swathes of oblivious bystanders is Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard rent-a-cop à la Paul Blart. With a famously zealous penchant for enforcing the law (he was fired from his position as a college campus officer for being too forceful with students, as well as patrolling the highways for misbehaving teens), his eyes and ears are constantly open.
After shifting some rowdy boys away from the gig, he notices a lone backpack. The surrounding police are nonplussed in the moment, insisting ‘it’s probably just beer’. Jewell is unconvinced, rallying the troops to properly section off the area. ‘I’d rather be crazy than wrong,’ he says.
One pale-white look from a qualified officer confirms a ticking time-nightmare: inside laid one of the largest pipe-bombs they’d ever seen. Despite rapid emergency efforts, it still went off, killing one and injuring 111 others in a flurry of shrapnel and blood. If it hadn’t been for Jewell, those numbers would have tipped even further up the toll.
For a director prone to no-frills, soup-to-nuts film-making, the Centennial Park sequence is palpably orchestrated. Like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds tapped into post-9/11 trauma as the tripods roamed the Earth, Eastwood’s framing device, a claustrophobic lens, keeps boots-on-the-ground – chiming true with us, the consumers, who seek to be closer to mayhem more than ever before.
Jewell was hailed as a hero in the immediate fallout of the incident. Tossed from station to station, his face rode the news-waves. While his mum (Kathy Bates in a progressively moving performance) watched on with pride at home, the investigation to find the person responsible ramped up behind the scenes, both in the FBI and the press.
Olivia Wilde’s (wildly overplayed, bizarrely sketched) journalist says: ‘Please god, whoever it is, let them be f*cking interesting.’ This raises the titillating question: who would make a better headline than a ‘frustrated white man, who’s a police wannabe, who seeks to become a hero’?
As Jon Hamm’s averse FBI agent says: ‘You always look at the guy who found the bomb just like you always look at the guy who found the body.’ The tide soon turned – Jewell inexplicably became the prime suspect.
Jewell’s story has been given due justice before, in Marie Brenner’s concise, thorough 1997 report for Vanity Fair, ‘American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell‘. However, in Billy Ray’s translation to a screenplay and furthermore, Eastwood’s interpretation, there’s an alarming (albeit partisan) prescience.
It’s a Trumpian wet dream: anti-FBI and anti-press. But Richard Jewell’s accomplishment lies far beyond iffy politics and presidential hot topics – it’s an angry movie, embittered with today’s thunderdome treatment of guilt before the courts.
Wilde’s Kathy Scruggs is (wrongfully) portrayed as a power-hungry shark who sleeps with sources for stories. Hamm’s FBI agent is a portrait of ill-judgement, prosecuting as means of convenience than the actual truth (at one point, he even conjures an accomplice theory, justifying it with: ‘Yeah, why not?’). Combined, they make for a scathing worldview.
This gives way to Sam Rockwell’s Watson Bryant, Jewell’s good-willed lawyer who he met while working as a porter at an earlier law firm (he nicknames him Radar, for his always-on personality and observations pertaining Snickers).
As the press and law enforcement’s probing grows more relentless, and in return Jewell’s complicity becomes somehow more solicitous, Rockwell’s sturdy, quick-witted charisma makes him an effective participant and spectator to the unfolding injustice. His screams into the void of his plaintiff’s civility match our own, especially as every false dot persists on joining together.
‘I was brought up to respect authority,’ Jewell says. Bryant replies: ‘Authority is what’s outside that window looking to eat you alive.’ Ultimately, it’s a heart-breaking story: as Hauser’s earnest, endearing demeanour grows more fragile, you truly understand the toll of being railroaded by a lie.
Jewell found himself on the wrong end of two of the most powerful forces in the world – the US government and the media – for a crime he didn’t commit. All he was ever guilty of was looking ‘like the kind of guy who might set off a bomb’.
Eastwood may find resolve in simple direction and caricatures, but it’s Hauser’s considered, vulnerable performance that carries the tragedy of the piece home – he joins Adam Sandler on the list of egregious Oscar snubs this year.
The president’s wails of fake news aren’t the beneficiary of this story – its wider implications ring true for an audience engaged with a never-ending stream of stories. The advent of the internet has led to the largest appetite for content the world has ever experienced. Digestion is rapid and repeating, anger is snappy and loud.
Agendas are rife. It’s pivotal for the media to combat misinformation, despite the dangling temptation of a strong headline – the jury of public opinion is far too hazardous to capitalise on that day-to-day risk.
One would imagine, and hope, the world knows better now. Yet, the travesty of Richard Jewell isn’t an archaic tragedy – history could easily repeat itself tomorrow.
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