' ' Cinema Romantico: Richard Jewell

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Richard Jewell

There is a framed photo on the wall of Bobbi Jewell’s (Kathy Bates) Atlanta apartment of her son, Richard (Paul Walter Hauser), predominantly featured in the background of many scenes. Looking like law enforcement Glamour Shots, it appears almost out of place, like something you’d expect in an SNL sketch about the character. But this image solidifies in our mind the idea of Richard Jewell that solidified within the nation’s mind in the immediate aftermath after he was wrongly fingered, though never officially charged, for the bombing of Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park in 1996. He was portly, a wannabe, a mama’s boy. Clint Eastwood’s film, then, is not merely reclaiming Richard Jewell’s name but his identity, embodied in Hauser’s excellent, layered, moving performance, observant and oblivious, humble and high on his own supply, awkward and endearing. The early scenes where he works as a supply clerk at a small law firm might almost feel too much like set-up, eager to belong and convinced that he does, but in his role as Richard’s unlikely buddy, attorney Watson Bryant, Sam Rockwell makes them work anyway, coming put off by this clerk’s overbearing nature but also, eventually, won over by Richard’s good intentions in spite of himself. 

If Richard is unable to get out of his own way, so overzealous in his commitment to enforcing the law that he gets run out of a job as campus security, it is this weakness that proves a strength at the most necessary moment, in Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics when he comes across a suspicious backpack and insists it be searched, urging people to get back and saving lives when the bomb is found. One moment the entire park is dancing in unison to the “Macarena”, which is no nostalgia trip but a deliberate piercing of an innocent bubble, the world changed as the bomb explodes and nails scatter across the ground, a simple insert shot that demonstrates how Eastwood’s famously spare aesthetic can work better than big budget effects, a specific detail that makes it more real and nauseating. The bomb explodes not only Richard’s bubble but his mother’s (Kathy Bates) too, though they don’t know it at first, as Richard is fitted for a hero, interviewed on The Today Show. A fictional FBI agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), unhappily relegated to Centennial Park duty, however, having missed his own chance to play hero, wastes no time in honing in on Richard for hitting a so-called faux hero profile, setting himself up for heroics. Hamm’s patented smug superiority makes it believable that Shaw would railroad an innocent man, even as it’s here where you can detect Eastwood tipping the scales. 

Shaw is not the only transgressor against Richard Jewell. There is also Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), the Atlanta Constitution Journal reporter who breaks the story that Richard Jewell is a prime FBI suspect in the bombing. She scores this tip not so much from diligent reporting as cozying up to Shaw at a bar and seducing him, the scene ending by implying that she has slept with him to garner the scoop, evoking the government and the media as literally being in bed together. It’s the kind of defamation Eastwood undoubtedly believes in. (Famously, NBC’s Bob Costas stood up for Richard Jewell. Costas, of course, is nowhere to be found in “Richard Jewell.”) However true, hackneyed, or asinine you find this argument to be, a reviewer would be derelict in not pointing out that Kathy Scruggs was a real person (she died in 2001) and not one shred of evidence exists to suggest her sleeping with or seducing a source was true. 

Here we have a movie that is all about restoring the reputation of a man who was slandered, arguing just how un-American such slander is, that then turns around and slanders a woman in service of arguing against slander in the first place. To paraphrase the 42nd President of the United States, it takes some brass to attack the media for doing what you’re doing. Wilde, meanwhile, is giving a performance living up to the descriptions of Scruggs in this AJC piece by Jennifer Brett in the wake of the movie’s release, playing the role as a wild child with vulnerability. Eastwood, though, hangs her out to dry, epitomized in a newsroom scene where Bryant, working as Jewell’s lawyer enters to ream her out, as all her co-workers figuratively look away. It is a cowardly portrayal by Eastwood and works against his excellent portrayal of Jewell and Hauser’s superb turn, working in harmony to essentially disavow the unambiguous hogwash Eastwood is peddling in his own film’s the other half. If Richard is repeatedly counseled that the system he believes in is trying to take him down, Hauser’s Richard can’t help but believe in the system anyway, a moving grey area juxtaposed against Eastwood’s insistent notion of black and white. 

No comments: