TOM TANGNEY

‘Richard Jewell’ a fascinating look at societal forces on lone individuals

Dec 13, 2019, 6:47 AM

An innocent man wrongly accused is inherently dramatic. When the accusation is not only murder but attempted mass murder, the stakes are even more dramatic. And when this accused man also seems uniquely ill-equipped to defend himself, well, you have the basis for Clint Eastwood‘s latest movie, “Richard Jewell.”

Richard Jewell was a household name for a few months in 1996, after he discovered a bomb just before it blew up and killed two people and injured a hundred others in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the Summer Olympics.

FBI: “Richard, you’re a national hero now.”
Jewell: “Thank you, sir, but I was just doing my job.”

His national hero status didn’t last but a few days. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story that the FBI was looking at him as their #1 suspect, Jewell’s life was turned upside down. Hounded by FBI agents and the media, Jewell became a national pariah and a punchline. And he didn’t have a clue as to why.

Truth be told, Jewell, played brilliantly by little-known actor Paul Walker Hauser, was something of an odd duck. He was an overweight unmarried 33-year-old security guard living with his mother (Kathy Bates) at the time of the blast. He’d always dreamed of being a police officer but had been let go from a number of law enforcement jobs, primarily for overzealousness.

Jewell so looked up to authority that when the worm turned and the FBI was coming hard after him, his attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) could only express his frustration at his client’s accommodating behavior.

Attorney: “Stop trying to be their best friend.”
Jewell: “I was raised to respect authority.”
Attorney: “Authority is looking to eat you alive.”

“Richard Jewell” the movie is a cautionary tale about the devastating personal consequences of a citizen being outed before a criminal investigation is complete. Eastwood is quite clear on who he thinks is to blame for nearly destroying Jewell and his mother’s lives.

Attorney Watson Bryant, mouthpiece for Eastwood: “His accusers are two of the most powerful forces in the world: the United States government and the media.”

That sentiment clearly resonates in the world of 2019 politics, but I’m not sure if that’s intentional or accidental. What I do know is that, as rich as its portrayal is of Jewell, his mother, and his lawyer, the movie suffers a bit by the almost cartoonish presentation of its designated villains, the FBI, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the female reporter who broke the initial story. Objections have been raised especially about the suggestion that the reporter got her big scoop by sleeping with an FBI agent. Since there’s no evidence of that and the reporter is no longer alive to defend herself, it seems an unnecessary slur. It’s the worst kind of irony that a movie about a man unfairly portrayed in the media commits the same sin against someone else.

Nonetheless, “Richard Jewell” is a fascinating look at the impact these large societal forces inevitably have on lone individuals, individuals who find themselves at the center of a storm through no fault of their own. It’s not a pretty sight.

More movie reviews from Tom Tangney

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‘Richard Jewell’ a fascinating look at societal forces on lone individuals