‘Richard Jewell’ ruins classic hometown hero story with political statement

Photo courtesy of Roger Ebert.

By Amanda Landwehr / Arts & Culture Editor

By Evi Arthur / Editor-in-Chief

With an impressive cast, a December-release date and a well-respected Hollywood director, “Richard Jewell” was set up for success. Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, this film tells the true story of Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Although Jewell’s quick thinking and conscientiousness saves many lives, he quickly becomes the FBI’s top suspect. And once the media finds out, the security guard quickly goes from hometown hero to America’s most high-profile villain. 

Jewell, played by Paul Walter Hauser, is a longtime security guard who wants nothing more than to work his way up in the ranks of law enforcement. Despite his quick thinking at the Olympics, he is investigated by the FBI who sees Jewell’s history of aggression, obsession with being a cop (like unlawfully pulling people over on the highway as a campus security guard) and infatuation with law enforcement as ample evidence that he could have placed the bomb. However, throughout the movie, Jewell never seems to really grasp the fact that he is the FBI’s top suspect for a serious crime and continuously gets himself into situations where he implicates himself. 

Although the audience knows Jewell is innocent, it was incredibly frustrating to watch Jewell fall for the investigating agents’ tactics to dig up more evidence time and time again. Even as a team is collecting possible evidence from his home—which he shares with his mother, played by Kathy Bates—Jewell keeps insisting that he is also law enforcement and assuring the FBI agents that they won’t find any evidence in his apartment. 

Paul Walter Hauser’s performance is nothing less than impressive, but Sam Rockwell is the true star of the film. Playing Jewell’s exasperated attorney—and perhaps Jewell’s only good decision throughout the film—Watson Bryant, Rockwell offers much needed comic relief throughout the movie. His reactions to Jewell’s decision-making made up my favorite parts of the movie, whether it was his blatant evil-eying at Jewell to stop talking or the sharp banter between him and lead F.B.I. investigator Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm).

One of my major complaints with the film was its portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the career-centric journalist who labels Jewell as the Olympic bomber in hopes of making the cover of the Atlanta Journal. The film implies that she slept around with officials for story scoops. After seeing the movie, I wanted to know more about the real story behind “Richard Jewell” and began doing some research of my own. I found many articles written about Scruggs, most of which included the words of former coworkers who came forward and said that the portrayal of Scruggs throughout the film was inaccurate.

Although Scruggs was notorious for her drinking, smoking and cursing, she was greatly admired by her colleagues and friends as being vibrant and charismatic. Former Atlanta Police Chief Beverly Harvard even expressed her praise for Scruggs, calling her a “fair” and “accurate” reporter. So how did Scruggs become the “bad guy” of this story?

In my opinion, Eastwood clearly characterizes Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) as a morally-crooked reporter hoping to advance her career in order to display his own distrust with the present state of media. There is no evidence that Scruggs ever traded sex for information, making the film seem hypocritical of the one thing it denounces: injustice.

In a time where “fake news” is a term being thrown around by virtually every politician in America, “Richard Jewell” seems to play into the right-wing conspiracy that the media is corrupt and dishonest. But Scruggs’ sources were credible—a friend told “Vanity Fair” that Scruggs had received a tip about Jewell from a close friend in the F.B.I. So yes, the accusation wasn’t correct, but her investigative instincts were in the right place. Scruggs’ portrayal in “Richard Jewell” feels cheap and accusatory, and she never even lived to defend her reputation. Scruggs died in September of 2001 at the age of 42 due to an overdose.

To me, “Richard Jewell” is yet another installation of the “falsely-accused man is wronged by the government” scheme reminiscent of the Western-film era. The “wrong-man” trope within this film seems to operate more so as a political tool rather than a compelling and accurate retelling of the actual events surrounding Richard Jewell’s accusation. Eastwood seems to push a narrative which states that as long as big government and a powerful media presence continue to operate within the U.S., there will always be a lone underdog wronged by the system.

But is the “underdog” always well-intended? In 2019, this film’s narrative simply fails to hit home—even the president has been accused of high crimes against the U.S. government. If the film’s goal was to have audiences shake their fists at the media and the government, then what constructive purpose did the retelling of Jewell’s story have at all? 

Jewell’s story—his actual story—serves as a warning against judging people based on assumption. This narrative could have been interesting and well-presented, but instead Eastwood chose to make Jewell the victim of an all-controlling government, molding his story into that of the innocent underdog. 

Despite compelling performances from the cast, “Richard Jewell” fell flat. Instead of being a complex story about the dangers and tragedies of misinformation, this movie feels more like an anti-government, anti-media tirade that plays right into the hands of those who want to “Make America Great Again.”

4 out of 10 torches

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, arts and entertainment, Front Page, Recent News, Recent Posts, Recent Stories, RUTORCH, Web Exclusive

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