Overzealous. That’s the word to describe the three major characters in Clint Eastwood’s new movie “Richard Jewell.”
Jewell was a security guard who noticed an abandoned backpack under a bench at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics. He notified police officers and then moved the nearby crowd away, but not soon enough. The three pipe bombs full of nails inside the backpack exploded, killing a couple of spectators and seriously injuring dozens more.
The FBI, for some reason, suspected Jewell of planting the bomb in order to set himself up as a hero. Once the agency came to that conclusion and became single-minded in its efforts, an FBI agent leaked the information to a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which printed his name and photo on its front page, setting off a media frenzy. Jewell was considered America’s top villain within days. Both the FBI and the media hounded him mercilessly, despite no substantiation of what he’d done wrong ever being offered — other than he was a white guy, a loner who lived with his mother, and a cop wannabe.
In a coincidence of timing, “Richard Jewell” is being released in the same week the Justice Department’s Inspector General appeared before a Senate committee and lambasted the FBI for egregious problems during its investigation of Russia’s interference of the 2016 election in the US. In his testimony, the IG said the FBI, in its court filings, selectively cited some supporting evidence while purposely omitting contrary evidence — the same manipulation the bureau used when targeting Jewell 23 years ago.
Jewell did desperately want to be a police officer, but was too overzealous for his superiors, even as a campus security guard, hassling college students for having beer in their dorm rooms. He seemed like the kind of cop who, if he had a patrol car, would pull you over and give you a ticket for going three miles per hour over the speed limit.
He’s played by the perfectly-cast Paul Walter Houser, who looks exactly like Jewell did at the time. Houser has made a career recently of playing guys like this, including Shawn Eckhardt (one of the thugs who attacked Nancy Kerrigan) in the 2017 movie “I, Tonya.” He was also Ivanhoe, one of the KKK thugs in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” last year. As Jewell, Houser gains our sympathy early on and keeps it, even as he frustrates his own attorney by not keeping his mouth shut — he so wanted to be in law enforcement that he saw nothing wrong with not only cooperating with the FBI as it investigated him, but offering them assistance, too.
Jon Hamm is Tom Shaw, the lead FBI investigator on the case, the first to decide to focus on Jewell, which he did ruthlessly. His overzealousness included lying to Jewell to try to force a confession, as well as leaking his name to the AJC reporter. It’s your standard Hamm performance, as solid as many of his supporting roles have been in recent years and reminiscent of the FBI agent he played in 2010’s “The Town” (but without the bad Boston accent).
Olivia Wilde (fresh from her very funny directorial debut “Booksmart” — my review is here) plays Kathy Scruggs, the overzealous newspaper reporter who desperately wanted to get a scoop. It’s important to point out that what Scruggs reported was accurate. She didn’t say Jewell was the bomber. She wrote that, according to an FBI source, Jewell was the target of the investigation — which was true.
Unfortunately, Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray make Wilde-as-Scruggs almost cartoonish in her dislike of her colleagues and her desire to break the story. They have her come on to Shaw in a bar, essentially offering sex for the tip that started the horror show for Jewell. This was ground much bettered covered by Sally Field and Paul Newman in 1981’s “Absence Of Malice.”
In real life, the AJC has sued the filmmakers, claiming the sex-for-information encounter never happened, and insisting a disclaimer be added to the movie. Like all movies (particularly biopics), “Richard Jewell” includes the standard statement at the end that “some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters.” Eastwood and Warner Brothers have refused to add anything else, pointing out the irony of legal action coming from the newspaper that helped to unravel Jewell’s life in the first place. The AJC responds that at least Jewell was alive to defend himself at the time, while Kathy Scruggs is dead. Sadly, the paper’s efforts won’t change the public’s posthumous regard of her after this depiction.
Still, when movies are “based on a true story,” how much do they have to hew to history? I had an issue with the way “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Molly’s Game” played with the timelines of their subjects, even though I enjoyed the rest of those movies. The finale of “Argo” included Iranian troops chasing the escape plane down the runway, which never happened. History records no feud between Mozart and Salieri, but that’s the heart of the movie “Amadeus.” Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” left out John Nash’s homosexuality, but includes his paying tribute to his wife in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech — which he never did.
Did that negate the impressiveness of those movies? No, and it doesn’t do so with “Richard Jewell.” Instead, let it serve as a reminder that “based on a true story” is not the same as “a true story.” You know, like “Fargo.”
The person who wasn’t overzealous in the whole Richard Jewell saga was Watson Bryant, who Jewell turned to for help because he didn’t know any other lawyers. He’s portrayed by Sam Rockwell, who keeps racking up great performances in good movies and is always a pleasure to watch — especially the expression on his face when Jewell, who he has specifically told not to speak to the FBI, does so repeatedly.
Kathy Bates is along for this ride, too, as Barbara Jewell, Richard’s mother, who was at first proud of her hero son and then mortified by how he was treated by the FBI and the media. It’s a role Bates could play in her sleep, but she steps it up a notch and really humanizes the woman. There’s also nice supporting work from Nina Arianda, who my wife recognized from the Amazon Prime series, “Goliath,” where she plays Patty Solis-Papagian, a lawyer who works with Billy Bob Thornton’s character. Here, she’s Bryant’s right-hand woman, the only one who adds a dash of humor to the proceedings.
Eastwood’s hand as director is still steady, as he keeps the story moving with very little filler. However, he does lean on the anti-government, anti-media sentiments a little too strongly. Those should not be the takeaway from this movie. Instead, everyone who sees it should remember one basic, important, American right: when you’re being questioned about a crime by any agent of law enforcement, listen to your lawyer and keep your mouth shut.
I give “Richard Jewell” a 7.5 out of 10.