‘Richard Jewell’ Is A Grouchy Rant Disguised As A Hero’s Story — And A Shameful Character Assassination

Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Richard Jewell, seems destined to become one of those movies an older relative says they love, cornering me at a holiday party and asking what I think of it. At which point I’ll have to bite my tongue to keep from delivering an insufferable party-ruining diatribe about why it’s actually not just flawed, but bad. Bad art, bad storytelling, and a bad thing to expose to impressionable boomer brains. Do not let your grandpas see Richard Jewell.

On a certain level, I get it. Richard Jewell is nicely paced and has plenty of enjoyable scenes and wonderful performances — Sam Rockwell doing Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s lawyer, and Paul Walter Hauser getting the leading man treatment. Watching a fat guy kill it in a leading man role is kind of like seeing a fat guy score in football – a rare treat. But Clint Eastwood, who directed, is a lot like Sylvester Stallone these days. For the less media savvy, it’s easy to miss that they’ve both become the worst kind of reactionary Fox News grandpa, because through it all they’ve maintained their savant-like grasp of scene building and story structure. But nice pacing and snappy dialogue does not excuse what Eastwood does in Richard Jewell, turning real people into sluts and losers in a rant about fake news and the Feds.

Richard Jewell tells the story of its title character, a 34-year-old failed cop-turned-security guard working Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park in 1996, where he found a bomb — the largest pipe bomb ever at that point — just before it exploded and killed two people. Jewell, an archetypal good ol’ boy who dreams of being a cop, is first hailed as a hero and then, through a series of strange circumstances, pilloried in the court of public opinion as a suspected terrorist. Focused on this gun-loving, cop-worshiping oddball because he “fit the profile of a lone bomber,” the FBI missed the real bomber for another seven years — a radical racist Christian identitarian named Eric Rudolph, whose rants against “global socialism” sound a bit like something Eastwood might growl at an empty chair.

In Richard Jewell, adapted by Billy Ray from a Vanity Fair article, Rudolph gets exactly one mention, at the very end of the movie. The ideology driving Rudolph warrants only the vaguest hints. Instead, the story is about how an eccentric mama’s boy with-a-heart-of-gold had his life ruined by a callous, uncaring media.

It’s true, the nineties media machine was a different beast than the one today, a thriving commercial enterprise in which cutthroat outlets competed to out-sensationalize each other covering tabloid stories in a 24-hour cycle. No one knew what that would do to the subjects of its coverage, because that format was unprecedented. Pop culture is littered with the corpses of accidental celebrities the ’90s press did dirty — Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Amy Fisher, Mary Joe Buttafuoco, and Lorena Bobbit. There’s certainly a story to be told here about a content-hungry press, just as there was in I, Tonya, another movie in which Paul Walter Hauser was unforgettable. (Weird trivia: Jay Leno joked at the time that Jewell “had a scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan,” essentially the guy Hauser played in I, Tonya, and later called Jewell to apologize for it).

In Richard Jewell, the entire 24-hour news apparatus is represented in the form of one ambitious, unethical slut: Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. In her first scene, Scruggs storms into the paper’s office in a flouncy minidress and gold choker that says “KATHY,” calling her fellow lady reporters jealous bitches and asking a male colleague whether she should get implants for the good of her career. “I’m thinking D-cups,” she growls, cupping her own boobs as a visual aid. Subtle!

This woman uses sex to get what she wants and must be humbled, the movie all but shouts. After a bombing sequence that, to Eastwood’s credit, is brilliantly staged and lands with a bang, the FBI, through a strange series of screwups, coincidences, and legitimate observations about Jewell, comes to focus their investigation on Jewell. In the film’s telling, when Scruggs first hears about the bombing, she says a prayer — not for the people injured, but that the murderer will be interesting enough for a juicy story. Such a ghoul!

Later, when Scruggs tries to find out who the FBI is looking at for the crime, she extracts the information from FBI agent Tom Shaw (played with furrowed aplomb by Jon Hamm) by… and I swear I’m not being reductive here… grabbing his cock at a bar.

Kathy Scruggs was a real person. Quite a character by most accounts, foul-mouthed and wild, she was once arrested drunk and naked in the driver’s seat of a taxi outside a Buckhead bar. She’s also, not surprisingly, not alive to defend herself. She died in 2001 at age 42, six years before Richard Jewell died in 2007 at age 44. Care to guess which one of these facts gets mentioned in the film’s epilogue and which doesn’t? Jewell gets a eulogy, Kathy Scruggs gets a hit piece.

“Ambitious reporter who sleeps with her sources for scoops” has been a staple of fiction since at least the forties (despite working in media for 12 years I have yet to encounter one, maybe they died out in the late nineties), and Richard Jewell ruins a great character by flattening her into a lame trope.

“‘If she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true.’” Scruggs’s friends and coworkers remember her salty language, short skirts and occasional antics. Still, they say, it’s wrong to suggest she relied on illicit assignations to do her job. [Atlanta Journal Constitution, in the lead up to the film]

After Scruggs uses sex to get her scoop, the office men urge caution and sobriety, but Scruggs is too emotional to be denied and they rush the story to print. In reality, Scruggs, according to the source material for the movie, “had allegedly gotten a tip from a close friend in the F.B.I., [and gotten] a confirmation from someone in the Atlanta police.”

Which is to say: she did her job. She reported the truth. Which was that the FBI was investigating Jewell. Are we really to believe that Scruggs screwed the information out of an unwilling agent? The Suspect, a book about the case released this year, cited by the actors as part of their research, even names the agent (the movie cloaks him in anonymity), who invited Scruggs to a bar to feed her the information. The case was being handled by an FBI division that had been formed to fight the Cold War, “whose strength was intimidation and manipulation rather than the deliberate gathering of evidence to be presented in court.” Then FBI director Louis Freeh, who was said to be directing the entire investigation from Washington, had a chief of staff who claimed that the FBI had no responsibility to protect the identities of people it was investigating.

Meanwhile, new management at the AJC around the time, in an attempt to emulate USA Today, had mandated a dumbed-down house style emphasizing “chunklets,” news in more bite-sized packages with no back page jumps, and a “voice of God” house style that stressed declarative sentences, where attribution was merely implied. That turned Scruggs’ legitimate scoop about the FBI investigating Jewell into a God-like declaration that Jewell “fit the profile of a lone bomber” — which again, came from the FBI, who made the allegation and created the profile, not Scruggs.

Scruggs’ job, by the way, local police reporter, barely exists anymore — killed by corporate consolidation and private equity vampires in a media ecosystem where only demagogues seem to thrive. But sure, make this a story about one unscrupulous reporter who got too big for her brassieres. We could give Eastwood the benefit of the doubt here and call his treatment of Scruggs a flaw of the film but it seems more like the function. Scruggs is depicted by name while the FBI agent who fed her the information gets to hide behind a fictionalized identity. And obviously, there’s some irony to making an entire movie about the media doing someone dirty while doing one of the characters incredibly dirty. Why does Eastwood see Jewell as sympathetic and Scruggs not? Gee, I wonder.

There are other problems. Richard Jewell‘s FBI agents deliver press conferences flanked by the Confederate stars and bars of the state’s then-flag in a film that never once mentions the actual motive of the once-mentioned bomber. Which, as Rudolph wrote it, was “to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.” Rudolph called the Olympics a “celebration of global socialism” and said gays “should not attempt to infect the rest of society with their particular illness.”

How did the FBI miss him? Because they were busy working on a theory that “Richard Jewell was an enraged homosexual cop-hater who had been aided in the bombing by his lover.” Surely there’s some interesting irony there, of Jewell not wanting the FBI to think he’s gay (played for laughs in the film) while the real killer was out bombing queer-themed bars. Again, not covered in this movie.

Clint clearly doesn’t care about these things. He cares about the evil FAKE NEWS media’s cruel mistreatment of this nice, white good ol’ boy who loved guns, police, and the military (as did the protagonists of American Sniper, Sully, 15:17 to Paris, and Gran Torino come to think of it…) And, a few steps down from that, a tyrannical federal government (grrr, the deep state!) and uppity women. The saga of Richard Jewell is a fascinating story. It deserves a more competent teller than this (though admittedly the acting is hard to beat).

Richard Jewell is ultimately a character assassination that rests on hackneyed narratives and lazy assumptions. Which makes it exactly the kind of thing it thinks it’s railing against.

‘Richard Jewell’ opens this weekend in theaters nationwide. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.