In 1996, during the Summer Olympic games, a bomb went off in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, killing one and hurting many others. Though it was security guard Richard Jewell who found and alerted police to a suspicious package at the event, he became the prime suspect because he fit the profile of a loner seeking a hero’s welcome. Over the course of nearly three months, Jewell would be investigated by the FBI and have every aspect of his and his mother Bobi’s life turned upside down. Based on a script adapted for the screen by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and directed by Clint Eastwood (The Mule), Richard Jewell, inspired by an article from Marie Brenner and the book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, conveys the intriguing story of Richard Jewell as a cautionary tale of what is currently called “cancel culture.”
The story of Richard Jewell is a compelling one all on its own. He was in the right place at the right time, took his training seriously, and followed procedures. Based on the depiction from Eastwood, if Jewell had dismissed the package by following his coworkers’ advice, the death toll would’ve been significantly higher and the injuries far worse. The film should be the kind of uplifting, everyman hero story Disney frequently sells a la Remember the Titans, but this is not a heartwarming story. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, a cautionary tale. To that end, Eastwood’s direction wonderfully captures the isolation that Jewell must’ve felt as the media and FBI encircled him physically and psychologically, as they heralded him as a hero one day and did whatever they could to tear him down another. To that end, Richard Jewell contains a very specific theme of distrust in media and government. That, simply because Jewell possessed suspicious elements, he was immediately guilty. Intentionally or not, Eastwood even goes so far as to spend a great deal of time first providing context for Jewell’s slightly idiosyncratic behavior and his all-too passionate, though friendly, love for law enforcement before spending even more time presenting all the reasons Jewell could well be the suspect. Keep in mind that Eastwood doesn’t hide the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, from camera. It’s that the script from Ray almost wants the audience to forget all the good will cultivated to the audience before, to make them just as angry as the FBI and as confused as Jewell, only to then remind the audience that there’s a little detail that exonerates Jewell completely. By that point, however, the damage is done to Jewell’s reputation and to turn back on him is to admit public defeat. In the bonus featurette “The Making of Richard Jewell,” actor Jon Hamm (Baby Driver) poses the question “what is it about 2019 that makes this story relevant?” At first, that seems like a reasonable question as the bombing took place in 1996 and most are likely unaware of Jewell at all, if his connection is remembered. Then, one begins to think about the prevalence of the online mob in enacting “social justice” wherein the court system is all but tossed out in favor of some kind of immediate righteous punishment before moving on to someone else. This is where Eastwood’s point comes across the strongest, where the emotionally of Richard Jewell is felt the most: it’s not just that Jewell was innocent, it’s that there’s an appearance of disregard for the truth in his interrogation.
The narrow point of the film is about extending the knowledge of Jewell’s innocence. Some of this is covered in more specific detail in the second featurette “The Real Story of Richard Jewell,” yet much of it is communicated via Ray’s script. He died in 2007 from heart failure and did so with his freedom intact, yet there’s certainly a sense from the film that his life was never the same after. Yes, he did join a police department (a desire he’d held for a long time), but there’s an obvious psychological toll he endured while his life was under a microscope. Eastwood beautifully conveys this pressure through the use of handheld cameras, staging of scenes in which the characters are held tightly in frame for extended periods, and generally maintaining a tight medium focus on Paul Walter Hauser’s performance as Jewell. Eastwood makes the scenes constantly feel claustrophobic, even when outside, wonderfully communicating Jewell’s building duress. To his larger point, though, Eastwood’s Richard Jewell is a commentary on the current social climate where keyboard warriors will track down employers, school districts, or anyone else they think can bring down maximum punishment for any offense. It’s vigilantism protected by the anonymity of the Internet and it’s dangerous. Sometimes bad people are exactly that and they out themselves with violent behavior or denigrating remarks, all of which are caught on camera. Sometimes, though, what we see on camera or in a photograph doesn’t offer complete context, yet that’s ignored for the thrill of “dropping justice” in our moral superiority. From Eastwood’s perspective, this is exactly what happened with Jewell in 1996 and that’s why the story deserves being told now, to serve as a warning that rushing to judgement catches up the innocent in the same wake that gathers the guilty.
While this is the focus of Eastwood’s feature (presenting Jewell as not just a victim of circumstance, but the specific target of the government and media), the underlying theme of distrust in law enforcement and the media seems particularly one-sided, creating a message that’s uplifting and yet muddled. In the film, Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) portrays Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs whose article about Jewell as a suspect turned his life into a media circus. According to the film, Scruggs seems willing to sleep with Feds for tips, is willing to break into cars to create access, drinks, and is generally despised by her fellow reporters. The audience is offered no sense of why she behaves this way and much of the depiction has been decried as done to create sensationalism within the film. Jon Hamm appears playing Tom Shaw, a fictional character in place of the unnamed agent who reportedly fed Jewell’s name to Scruggs. Where Wilde plays Scruggs as willing to do anything for success, Hamm instills Shaw with a sense of deep-seeded anger at Jewell, confused as to how this perceived simpleton could succeed where he, a grand professional, was just another victim in the crowd. If the film had explored either of these characters beyond the actor’s performative subtext, then perhaps the characters might seem to be more than just stand-ins for anyone who wanted a reason to hate or mistrust those tasked with serving the public.
One thing that can certainly be never said of Eastwood is that he isn’t a fine director. He trusts in his cast and makes sure that authenticity is strived for. As such, “The Making of Richard Jewell” highlights several elements, such as how they shot exterior footage at the complex where Richard Jewell lived, that Bobi Jewell came to set and spoke with the actors, and that they brought in former production manager Rebekah Jones for the 1996 Centennial Park celebration to ensure the accuracy of the look. Oscar-winner Kathy Bates (Misery), who portrayed Bobi in the film, discusses what it was like working with Eastwood, as does Hamm. Of the tidbits in the special features that truly spotlight the craftsmanship of Richard Jewell, it’s anything featuring actor Paul Walter Hauser who had the heavy task of portraying Jewell himself. Hauser has done some great work in recent years between 2017’s I, Tonya and 2018’s BlacKKKlansman, but Richard Jewell really shows what incredible range he’s capable of. The “Making of” featurette enables Hauser to talk about what the experience of the role was like, as well as meeting Bobi and her take on his characterization. Whether you think the film leans hard left or right politically, there’s no question that the people in front and behind the camera are exceptionally talented.
There’s no question that the facts were ignored in the pursuit of a public win. That’s the luxury of time and distance not afforded in the thick of any crisis. As the Fed represented by Shaw is still unknown, there’s no way to really confirm if Eastwood’s take on the person is accurate or just a villainous foil for his hero. With Scruggs and Jewell both deceased, there remain only others to speak for them, casting a certain amount of healthy doubt over the depictions in the film. This isn’t to suggest that Jewell is in fact guilty in any way. It’s quite clear from the evidence that he is the genuine definition of a hero. It’s just that the film itself doesn’t hide its slanted perspective when telling this tale. When a story leans so strongly in one direction, a creeping doubt rolls in that perhaps the filmmakers have their own agenda and it’s not merely Jewell’s innocence.
Richard Jewell Special Features
Blu-ray Special Features
- The Making of Richard Jewell
- The Real Story of Richard Jewell
DVD Special Features
- The Real Story of Richard Jewell
Available on digital beginning March 3rd, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning March 17th, 2020.
Final (Film) Score: 3.5 out of 5.