Richard Jewell is a heart-wrenching film about the dangers of media malpractice and abuse of authority. In this article, we look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Richard Jewell (warning: mild spoilers ahead). Here’s SEA Wave’s High Five review of Richard Jewell.
Based on a true story, the film focuses on the titular character Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard who finds a bomb during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Centennial Park, Atlanta, Georgia and helps evacuate the area. He is later wrongfully accused of staging the bombing himself and, with the help of lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), attempts to fight against these accusations.
At its heart, Richard Jewell is an attempt to clear the name of an innocent man by depicting the cruel experience he went through as the public turned against him and showing his resilience and strength as he faced media backlash and FBI investigations. It is an extremely moving experience, owing to the film being based on real life events and the talented cast of actors.
Hauser’s portrayal of the incompetent and overzealous yet ultimately well-meaning protagonist endears you to him, with little moments of humanity that make you believe the reality of the character, making what happens to him even more unjust. It especially hits hard when Richard’s mom Barbara (Kathy Bates), who is not equipped to handle such a media frenzy, cries out of frustration at her helplessness in protecting her own son.
Sam Rockwell’s performance as Jewell’s lawyer and friend Watson Bryant is also of note as he perfectly portrays a trademark Rockwell character – sardonic, confident and funny. Supported by the performances of Nina Arianda as Bryant’s secretary, Olivia Wilde as reporter Kathy Scruggs who broke the news about Jewell as the main suspect, and Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez as FBI agents and lead investigators of the bombing, Richard Jewell has an outstanding cast with quality performances.
Media malpractice and misrepresentation
Fake news and “alternative facts” are things we have heard a lot about in the past five years, and during a time where everything is going digital, website views are everything, even for news organizations. There are news outlets who openly opt for eye-catching and clickbait-type articles instead of accurate reporting just to rack up page views. And although the mechanism and media channels were different, this was just as true in the 1990s as it is today.
The media malpractice depicted in the movie shows the dangers of putting newspaper sales first. It can cause lives to be upended and, just like with today’s “cancel culture,” people can dogpile on whoever the target of derision is. However, despite the movie’s good intentions in putting this issue at the forefront, it does so at the expense of real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs.
Although the film takes precaution in depicting everything truthfully, lightly fictionalizing a few moments for dramatic effect, it goes to great lengths to transform Kathy Scruggs, a respected reporter who passed away in 2001, into a cartoonish villain. Throughout the movie, Kathy Scruggs was depicted as an ambitious and conniving reporter who is in it for the excitement and the glory. She sleeps with people for tips and regularly breaks the law for a story. This falls into the lazy and tired trope of the unethical woman reporter (see: Why Can’t Hollywood Get Female Journalists Right? for more on this trope). Olivia Wilde played this caricature of a character to a tee, however it is still questionable if this version of Scruggs was even necessary. It could be argued that a journalist doing the right thing but failing anyway would be a more compelling story than what was actually portrayed in the movie.
Abuse of authority
Abuse of authority is a running theme in the film, one that even the protagonist was not immune to. Early on in the film, Jewell was working as a college security guard and was notorious for overstepping his boundaries, forcibly entering student rooms and even pulling over cars outside the campus. He does this out of overzealousness for his job more than anything else. It is worth noting that he was also a huge law enforcement fanatic and was a former sheriff’s deputy himself, but was put on probation due to impersonating a police officer. Lots of parallels could have been drawn to modern day police to make it more relevant – serving the interests of the rich and powerful, protecting private property over lives – but these comparisons quickly fall by the wayside for a much simpler story, choosing instead to portray Jewell’s tenure as a campus cop for comedic effect and to illustrate his hero-worship of law enforcement that he would eventually grow out of.
This theme is also present during the FBI investigations on Jewell, where agents Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez) used underhanded tactics such as asking Jewell to read the bomber’s 911 message onto a telephone, asking him to sign an acknowledgement he has been read his Miranda Rights therefore effectively detaining him, and many more instances. This shines a light on the questionable methods of intelligence agencies and law enforcement – breaking ethical and moral boundaries to prove themselves right, despite evidence of the contrary. Abuse of authority is the villain that people with power cannot escape and it ties the whole movie together.
Rampant conservatism and libertarianism
Zooming out for a bit, we find that Richard Jewell is the latest among director Clint Eastwood’s series of biopics depicting the struggle of white conservative males, among which are American Sniper (2014), Sully (2016) and The 15:17 to Paris (2018). These films all paint white conservatives as heroes and follow the same thematic elements, often victimizing white conservative males as if the whole world was against them, including big government and media. This conservative/libertarian hand-wringing, however, works as a detriment to the film as whole, making certain scenes too ham-fisted and forced – the world is not against white conservative males, but rather against the dangerous and radical ideologies that lead them to doing violent and horrible things.
Something that the film touches on but does not explore is the discovery of the real Olympic Park Bomber, Eric Rudolph. On a visit to Jewell’s new job as deputy sheriff, Bryant mentions that he found the real bomber, but that’s about the only mention the topic gets. What isn’t mentioned is that Eric Rudolph grew up with fundamentalist Christian beliefs and was a member of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement. Eric Rudolph went on to bomb two abortion clinics and a lesbian bar after the Olympic Park incident. He later explained the reason for the bombings as an attempt to embarrass the government for “sanctioning abortion on demand” and to “combat homosexuality.” The bomber was a radicalized conservative and the film refuses to touch on the matter despite it being extremely relevant to the worldview it is trying to promote – that of the disenfranchised working class white American.
Richard Jewell is successful in depicting the titular character as the overeager accidental hero that he is and his personal story of being at the wrong place or saying the wrong things at the wrong time. The film is moving, frustrating, and extremely relevant, owing much to its talented actors, the factual nature of the story and the current landscape of news media. Despite all of this and the strong theme of abuse of authority, the film needs more polishing. It fails to accurately portray media malpractice and opts for a scapegoat in the form of Kathy Scruggs, a caricature of a real-life person who is no longer around to defend herself. It also offers a very limited worldview that victimizes white libertarians/conservatives instead of connecting the dots between conservatism and the bombings themselves.
Because of this, Richard Jewell receives 3 out of 5 waves.