In ‘Richard Jewell’, a hero is falsely implicated by the media. Sounds familiar?

Michael O’Sullivan & Marcela Isaza

THE WASHINGTON POST/ AP – In Richard Jewell, a movie about the security guard who found what’s known as the Centennial Park bomb during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was subsequently falsely implicated in planting it, the villains are more starkly delineated than the heroes. The bad guys are the government, represented by an overzealous, unscrupulous FBI agent (Jon Hamm), and the media, represented by a sleazy reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) (Olivia Wilde), who wrote a story identifying Jewell as the subject of the FBI’s investigation.

It’s the Trump-iest movie you’ve ever seen, set a full 20 years before the election of the famously press-bashing, “deep state”-loathing president. That’s perhaps no surprise, coming from Director Clint Eastwood, who has professed his admiration for United States (US) President Donald Trump.

But it does seem a little weird from the pen of screenwriter Billy Bay, whose Shattered Glass while detailing the journalistic malpractice of disgraced magazine reporter Stephen Glass, at least respected the standards of the news gathering profession.

Wilde’s Kathy Scruggs is implied to have slept with Hamm’s Tom Shaw for information, and she gleefully celebrates her paper’s scoop by fist-pumping her way around the AJC newsroom.

There’s plenty of room for outrage over suspicions that fell on an innocent man, without resorting to demonising reporters and law enforcement officers as caricatures of corruption.

On the other side is the title character, a nerdy, overweight rent-a-cop who, as the film opens, is about get fired from his campus security job at a local college for overly aggressive harassment of undergrads. Played by Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) with a nuance and commitment that makes it seem like he was born for the part, Richard is mocked for his girth, for his large collection of guns and for his inability to tamp down his uncool, almost grandiose enthusiasm for “law enforcement”, as he constantly tells anyone who will listen.

Sam Rockwell (L) and Paul Walter Hauser in ‘Richard Jewell’. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST/ AP
Director Clint Eastwood posing with cast members Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Paul Walter Hauser and Sam Rockwell during a portrait session to promote their film ‘Richard Jewell’ at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California

Doth he protest his innocence too much?

Richard doesn’t look like a hero, but its opposite, as his eccentric attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) is constantly reminding him: “All you’re guilty of right now is looking like the kind of guy who might set off a bomb,” Watson shouts at him, in frustration over Richard’s nervous, almost guilty demeanour.

Hauser and Rockwell’s crackling energy make this movie hum, aided and abetted by Kathy Bates as Richard’s long-suffering mother, with whom he lives in a cramped apartment. Hauser, as Richard, is absolutely superb: nebbishy, so solicitous of authority that he barely bothers to defend himself and seeming, at times, slightly dimwitted.

As Watson, Rockwell often steals the spotlight, playing his client’s most ardent defender and, when called for, his most dismayed life coach, as Richard naively finds himself playing into the hands of his enemies again and again.

And make no mistake: the press and the law are depicted not just as Richard’s nemeses, but as the enemy of the people, pursing manufactured agendas and cutting ethical corners. Richard Jewell isn’t so much a dispassionate look at the very real mistakes that were made by well-intentioned people as it is an indictment of entire institutions. It’s very nearly a second railroading – not of Jewell, but of his accusers.

Anchored by three top-notch performances in a story about the frightening possibility of false accusation, Richard Jewell is a handsomely made film.

But coming as it does in 2019, its vilification of reporters and the feds is even scarier.

EASTWOOD ON RICHARD JEWELL, CRITICISM AND FINDING STORIES

For his film Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood takes aim at the media and federal investigators for what he sees as a rush to judgment after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. The 89-year-old Director calls security guard Richard Jewell’s story A great American tragedy, one he’s been trying to tell for five years.

Eastwood’s movie recounts the chaotic summer night of the bombing, which killed one woman, and the swirl of confusion that followed. Within a few days, Jewell went from being hailed as a hero, for finding the bomb and reporting it to police, to becoming a prime suspect in the attack. He was cleared of suspicion after three months, and died in 2007 at age 44.

“It’s always tragic when people run off with half information and don’t really have the truth set up in front of them,” Eastwood said.

“The press is sometimes in a hurry because there’s so much competition to be the first to do something.” The AJC, a central character in the film, has disputed the paper’s depiction in Richard Jewell, saying it misrepresents their reporting on the story and their staff’s actions.

In an interview alongside his film’s star, Paul Walter Hauser, Eastwood spoke with The Associated Press about his struggle to get the film made, finding success in Hollywood despite being an introvert, and criticisms of the film’s accuracy.

AP: What were your biggest challenges with this?

Eastwood: Well, the challenge was that four-year period where the frustration of having the project all together right up to the last half an inch and then all of a sudden it fell apart – and it fell apart partly on my fault, too.

You negotiate and you hit a wall. Different studios owned the property.

And finally I walked away. Then this last year, I said, “I wonder whatever happened to that? And I wonder if I could reinstate it?”

AP: How do you hope this film changes the public’s perception of Richard Jewell?

Hauser: The hope with this film, other than entertaining an audience – we’re still in the business of entertaining and telling a great story – but the greater picture, of course, is the echo effect it will have on the public of clearing his name to all people. And I think that this is a victory lap for the Jewell family, as much as they can have without Richard here with them.

AP: What are you most proud of in your body of work?

Eastwood: Well, I did a one-act play once when I was in high school or junior high school, and I swore I would never do that again. I hated the idea. I was a terribly complex young kid, and the last thing I wanted to do is do an extrovert-ish thing like acting.

But then when you get into acting later as an adult, you realise it’s not necessarily an extroverted thing. Introverts make great actors because they have a lot of things they’re holding in.

It’s just a question of learning how to get them out into the open. It’s also a funny profession because you don’t know where the next thing is happening. You try it even if it has no resemblance to you at all or anything you’ve ever thought of.

It’s a fun life, but a lot of it just so happens. Stories come along. And stories are the king. And you go ahead and try to tell them the best you can. But it’s not just not an intellectual art form. It’s an emotional art form.

AP: The editor of the AJC has criticised the film. He’s questioning the accuracy, saying it’s not true that Kathy Scruggs traded intimacy with an ex-FBI agent in exchange for a tip. And they’re also challenging the notion that the paper ran a story with questionable sourcing. Do you have a response to the criticism?

Eastwood: I think the AJC probably would be the one group that would be sort of complexed about that whole situation because they are the ones who printed the first thing of there being a crime caused by Richard Jewell.

And so they’re probably looking for ways to rationalise their activity. I don’t know for sure. I haven’t – never discussed it with anyone from there.

Hauser: But also the biopics – Hollywood biopics are historically under scrutiny, whether it’s the Dupont family in Foxcatcher whether it’s the Catholic Church in Spotlight.

This is a very obvious thing that’s happening with the AJC and we understand their plight. But we’re telling our story. And I think we did a really good job.