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Non-Review Review: Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell is a paradox of a film, a narrative so propelled with righteous fury that it somehow misses its own point.

Clint Eastwood’s latest is his tightest and leanest narrative since Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, and this is not a coincidence. There’s considerable thematic overlap between Richard Jewell and Sully, both of which speak to themes that interest Eastwood as one of the defining American filmmakers. Like Sully, Richard Jewell is the story of an exception person who heroically saves lives only to witness the bureaucratic institutions of the state (and the press) turn upon them.

Pressing on.

Of course, Richard Jewell is quite distinct from Sully. Eastwood trades out “America’s Dad” Tom Hanks for the more ambiguous figure of Paul Walter Hauser. While Hanks is the embodiment of American decency, a clear-cut spiritual successor to Jimmy Stewart, Hauser has largely been defined by more muddy and murky roles with fantastic turns in films like I, Tonya and BlackKklansman. Indeed, the opening act of Richard Jewell leans into Hauser’s inscrutability, suggesting a more ambiguous interrogation of masculine heroism.

Unfortunately, Richard Jewell does not develop in that direction. Its early suggestions of moral complexity and anxieties about individual as much as collective authority give way to a stirring condemnation of a conspiracy to “railroad an innocent man.” This righteous fury is entirely justified, after all. The press and the authorities demonised Jewell, arguably hounding him to an early grave. However, Richard Jewell winds up so caught up in its righteous fury that it winds up “railroading” another innocent, abusing its power in the same way it accuses the press and authorities.

Lawyer up.

Eastwood is a defining American director, in both a technical and a cultural sense. Eastwood is a remarkably prolific director, particularly at his age. He has an incredible talent for producing proficient films on an almost annual basis, often balancing his own esoteric interests with a crowd-pleasing sensibility. Eastwood’s recent films, 15:17 to Paris and The Mule, have been eclectic late-career additions to his filmography, dabbling with familiar themes in a looser way.

Richard Jewell is much more tightly constructed than either 15:17 to Paris or The Mule. Like Sully, the film has a propulsive energy and a tight focus that provides a palpable momentum. Richard Jewell is always moving, but it is always moving along a clear arc towards a predetermined location. This allows the film to serve as a showcase for Eastwood’s strong craft. There are several crackerjack sequences in Richard Jewell, with the director skillfully and consciously ratcheting up the tension and dread – whether at a rock concert with a ticking bomb or in an interrogation room.

On the terror vision.

Eastwood knows what he is doing with Richard Jewell, a film that is drawn in stark black-and-white. The film opens with some suggestion of ambiguity around its leading man, a former postal clerk who dreamed of becoming a cop but settled for working campus security and as a contractor at open-air concerts. As framed by the film, Jewell sees himself as a man whose talents have never been appreciated by a world that denies him the authority he deserves. “I’m law enforcement too,” he repeats eagerly to any cop who will listen, as if saying it will make it true.

The first act underscores the dangers of that sort of pull towards authority. Attorney Watson Bryant is both fascinated and wary of the focused office worker. “Do you start every sentence with ‘I’?” Bryant asks when Jewell is caught stuttering after eavesdropping on the lawyer. When Jewell reveals that he stocked Bryant’s desk with Snickers bars, Bryant wonders how Jewell knew that he likes Snickers. Jewell explains that he deduced it from the wrappers he found in Bryant’s trash. “Nobody goes in my trash,” Bryant warns him.

Crowded out.

The early scenes establish Bryant as wary of the way that Jewell is drawn to the siren call of power and authority. When he discovers the Jewell is leaving his job as a postal clerk to work college security, Bryant offers him a “quid pro quo.” In exchange for a hundred dollars, Jewell promises not to abuse his power. The film immediately demonstrates that Bryant’s wariness has merit. As a campus security guard, Jewell takes to invading students’ rooms and pulling over cars on public highways.

There’s an interesting conflict set up here, one that might distinguish Richard Jewell from Sully. After all, Sully quite justifiably painted its central character as a platonic ideal, a hero so perfect that he might have been conjured from the public imagination. Richard Jewell hints at a more complicated portrayal. Hauser is compelling in the title role, playing a character who is clearly smart and ambitious, but lacking the sort of canniness or restraint that is necessary in an efficient authority figure. Hauser plays vulnerability very well, but also denial.

Uncut Jewell.

These opening scenes suggest that Richard Jewell might be a film wary of the very concept of authority, particularly when wielded judiciously. After all, Richard Jewell is inevitably going to be about two massive institutions bringing their weight to bear on the title character, and so the opening scenes hint at a broader criticism of the way that power is crafted and used in American life. Unfortunately, that very quickly goes out the window in the film’s second act.

Richard Jewell presents two major foils for the title character, representing the FBI and the press. Jon Hamm is suitably sleazy as FBI Agent Tom Shaw, who is presented as something of a fractured mirror to Jewell. Shaw is a lot more handsome and polished, as characters played by Jon Hamm tend to be. Shaw is also savvy and manipulative, in a way that obviously contrasts with the guileless Jewell. However, the film suggests that Shaw is closer to Jewell than he might acknowledge. Working the same dull concert as Jewell, Shaw laments, “I just feel like I’m meant for something more.”

“Look, I’ve played a sleazy FBI Agent for Ben Affleck. I’m playing a sleazy FBI Agent for Clint Eastwood. You know I’m going to play a sleazy FBI Agent for Bradley Cooper.”

The same is true of Atlanta journalist Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Scruggs is similarly ambitious and unfulfilled. Although she is nominally more successful than Shaw or Jewell – “sorry my stories keep knockin’ you off the front page,” she goads her co-workers like the cartoon villain she is – Scruggs is similarly anxious. National and international news has descended on Georgia for the Olympics, and Shaw is already anxious about the death of print media requiring a transition to television.

Richard Jewell presents Shaw and Scruggs as a set of outlandish pantomime villains. At one point, Scruggs literally dances into the newsroom cackling like a maniac. At another point, she pops up in the back seat of a car like a horror movie serial killer. Shaw does not come across much better, the film often presenting his treatment of Jewell as openly predatory. At one point, he waits for Jewell to be separated from his lawyer and asks, “Can I talk to you?” When the good-natured Jewell says “sure”, the film narrowly avoids a scare cue.

Meeting media-way.

Richard Jewell has an impressive amount of contempt for Shaw and Scruggs. Their cynical targeting of Jewell is not enough of itself. Richard Jewell insists that both Shaw and Scruggs are absolutely terrible at their jobs. Even their frame-up is defined by a black comedy ineptitude. After Shaw tries and fails to trick Jewell into signing away his rights, he awkward and desperately tries to destroy the tape recording of the botched attempt. Scruggs cannot even properly write up the hatchet job, needing another reported to “do [his] thing with [her] words.”

There is something very cynical in how Eastwood frames all of this. After all, like most of Eastwood’s films, Richard Jewell has a remarkably quick turnaround. The film’s repeated emphasis on the victimisation of a “frustrated white male” by the press and law enforcement feels very pointed, arriving in the middle of impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. One of the big Republican talking points during this process has been the idea that the FBI’s investigations and the media’s coverage of Trump have been biased and unfair. (Sully came out during Trump’s election.)

President and accounted for.

Eastwood certainly does little to discourage this reading. The presidency is invoked multiple times, with Bill Clinton appearing prominently in the background of an argument between Bryant and Scruggs over the treatment of Jewell. More to the point, the film treats the idea of profiling such domestic terrorists as “frustrated white men” as fundamentally unfair, very awkwardly glossing over the politics and profile of anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights activist Eric Rudolph in its assessment of the investigation.

However, the film’s biggest blind spot is Kathy Scruggs. Richard Jewell is so righteously angry about the persecution and demonisation of a white man that it actively participates in the victimisation of a white woman. Tom Shaw is a fictional character, a convenient stand-in for bureaucratic evils. Kathy Scruggs was a real person, and the film makes a variety of unfair and tasteless accusations about the reporter in order to turn her into the sort of caricature that it claims she made of Jewell.

Not Wilde about it.

Scruggs is presented as an incompetent and barely functional alcoholic who is openly grateful for a terrorist attack that wounds over one hundred people and ultimately kills two. She is so eager for a story that she will “f&!k it out of” anybody she can. Even ignoring the casual sexism of the cliché of the female journalist who sleeps with her sources, this feels like a particularly tasteless insinuation to level at a real person. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution even threatened the film with legal action, and demanded a disclaimer.

This is a massive blind spot in a film that is nominally about the importance of due process and the dangers of wielding that sort of power. Richard Jewell is so tied up in its righteous anger trying to vindicate the title character that it is completely oblivious to any collateral damage that might be accrued along the way. This cripples an otherwise interesting hook. Richard Jewell ceases to be a film about the horrors of unchecked media persecution, and instead a film about how unchecked media persecution is okay so long as it is used in the “right” way.

“Don’t Sully His Name!”

This is a shame, because there is a lot to admire in the construction of Richard Jewell. Eastwood remains a talented storyteller, keenly aware of how to manipulate audience sympathy and how to build tension over an extended run-time. Richard Jewell is both focused and propulsive, built entirely around its core point. The film doesn’t so much state its case as yell it, right down to the poster in Bryant’s office that reads, “I fear government more than terrorists.” There’s a lot to be said for the passion and vigour with which Eastwood makes that argument.

It is just a shame that it’s so blinkered that it ends up missing the core point of its own argument.

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