Clint Eastwood has made a career – the latter half anyway – directing real-life dramas which radiate urgency and tautness without ever tipping over into melodrama. Richard Jewell just about encapsulates everything to director seems to be drawn to: a true story of tragedy buttressed by a sense of resilience and an unassuming blue-collar hero representing middle America.
The titular character was thrown into the limelight on the eve of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta when, while working as a security guard, he discovered a bomb in Centennial Park during a pre-games concert. His quick thinking allowed for the clearing away of spectators and certainly saved many lives. For his actions, Jewell was lauded as a hero, but he soon found himself under investigation by the FBI as chief culprit and he was subsequently, and falsely, tarnished in the media as a “have-a-go hero” who planted the bomb himself in order to “discover” it and fling himself to fame. In the weeks following the bombing, Jewell found himself accelerating through a perverse celebrity shelf-life, finding adulation, tuning to hatred and then apathy in a matter of weeks and on a national scale.
Eastwood has put his tension-wringing dab hand to good use here, with an edgy first act which pre-empts the horror of the bombing, followed by a kitchen sink-hole of increasing confusion and indignation as Jewell’s name gets dragged through the mud and his life takes a very public nosedive.
Kathy Bates has won plaudits and nominations – rightly- for her performance as Jewell’s mother; her initial motherly pride giving way to despair as her and her son’s worlds begin to unravel. There is an acute honesty to her performance, so much so that she feels like an “everymother”; your mate’s, your own.
Paul Walter Hauser deserves a lot of credit, too, for a performance which walks the line of absurdity but never tips over into outright slapstick. His Jewell is an odd character, a naïve fantasist and apparently out of step with much of the world around him and open to ridicule. Whatever his flaws, though, his motivations are ultimately honest, and Eastwood succeeds in eking out substantial sympathy for his likeable, if unusual, lead.
And yet, there are glaring flaws. The characterisation of the FBI investigating Jewell and the press who jumped on the story is so ferocious it borders on the pantomime. It feels like a calculated attack on the Bureau and something approaching a blood-libel against all journalists, portrayed inevitably is bloodthirsty and, ultimately, immoral in their pursuit of a story.
Given Eastwood’s outspoken politics, you might write it off as a partisan curio, were it not for the characterisation of Kathy Scruggs, the journalist who initially broke the story that Jewell was being investigated as a suspect. She is presented as utterly unscrupulous and potentially dangerous, trading sex for exclusives and flaunting her sexuality while the movie shakes its head disapprovingly. It’s such a crass and misogynistic portrayal that one might wonder if, were it not for the fact that Scruggs is dead, the movie might raise the issue of defamation.
Drama, Biography | USA, 2019 | 15 | 31st January 2020 (UK) |Warner Bros. Pictures | Dir.Clint Eastwood | Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, John Hamm, Olivia Wilde,