- Run Time
- 2 hours and 11 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.
To impose a fine on the innocent is not right,
or to flog the noble for their integrity.
The story of security guard Richard Jewell could be the prime example for that cynical adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” Director Clint Eastwood, working at an age (89) when most of his peers are under assisted care in their own abode or nursing home, brings us the dramatic story of a hero suddenly under FBI scrutiny and media attack as a villain guilty of a heinous crime. The script by Billy Ray, based largely on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” details the ordeals that the hapless Richard Jewell endured following his discovery of the pipe bomb that killed 2 people and injured over 100 others during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Authorities stated that there would have been far more casualties if he had not insisted on calling the police and helped clear the immediate area of people.
That he is an unlikely hero the film makes clear by starting with a brief history of his employment as an office aide and a security guard and his continual embroilment in trouble because of his over zealousness in enforcing the law. He is a gofer at a law office where he becomes acquainted with lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), the two developing a brief friendship at an arcade where they share a love for a video shooting game. Their daily contact ends when Richard leaves for the first of a series of security cop jobs, lowly positions which he hopes will lead to work in a real police department. At a college where he cites some students for drinking in their dorm, the president fires him instead of commending him. Richard had called out so many students for minor infractions that everyone regarded him as a nuisance. It is this suspicious official who will later contact the FBI about his concern that Richard could be guilty of the Olympics bombing.
Richard, who lives at home with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), is an overweight naïf with a goal of becoming a law enforcement officer. As he tells someone later, he wants to protect people. But he oversteps his bounds too often in his bumbling zeal. In a sense this film can be seen as his growth from a clueless non-entity toward an adult more in tune with the outside world.
When FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) accepts an expert’s theory that the bomber must be a lone frustrated white male who aspires to be a hero or a law enforcement officer, Richard jumps to the head of the line of suspects. Pretending that he needs his help, Shaw and another agent take Richard to their offices where they interrogate him. They act friendly toward him and attempt to trick him into signing a confession. He is smart enough to refuse and to demand that he be allowed to call a lawyer. The only one he knows is Watson Bryant, who soon arrives to protect the rights of his client.
At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) learns of the FBI theory that has led to them zeroing in on a suspect. At the watering hole where she and agent Shaw often drink together, she tries to secure the suspect’s name. He resists until she offers a sexual favor leading to him divulging the name. She and another reporter write a story naming Richard as the suspect, but their editor hesitates to run it because CNN has a similar story but is waiting until more evidence can be gathered against the suspect. At Kathy’s urging the story is printed on the newspaper’s front page. Whereas for a few days strangers had recognized the security guard and addressed him as a hero, now they accost him as a vile enemy of the people. With dozens of reporters and media trucks parked outside their modest home, the Jewell’s lives are turned upside down. The story is now a national one, with Bobi especially upset that Tom Brocaw reports on her son as if he were guilty. The bomber had called 911 that a bomb would go off in 30 minutes, but instead, it exploded one minute later. Traced to a phone booth on the fairgrounds, it was apparent to Richard’s lawyer that there would have been no time for Richard to have left the phone and set up the bomb before it blew up. The FBI agents counter that Richard must have had an accomplice that made the call. To the objection that this goes against their lone bomber theory that first led to their fingering him, they have no defense. And yet they actually try to get him to read the words of the phone call into a recorder’s mike so they can compare voices!
The film’s depicting the FBI and the media as villains fits in with the current national administration’s attack on these once trusted institutions, so one should approach this film cautiously. While appreciating Richard’s story as a little guy up against the system, we should question the filmmakers’ two-dimensional portrayals of the FBI agent and the reporter. Especially upsetting is the scene in which Kathy uses sex to wheedle Jewell’s name from the agent, something apparently made up by the script writer—or so those who knew and worked with Kathy Scruggs vehemently charge. They remember her as an aggressive reporter dedicated to getting a story and writing it accurately, but who would never stoop to the low tactic dramatized in the film.
It is too bad that the filmmakers didn’t cut this scene from the script, it now distracting attention away from Richard and his unjust ordeal. Now in the eyes of those who dislike Hollywood it is the reporter who is the victim, all the more so because she is now dead and thus unable to defend herself.
More to my liking are the depictions of the three main characters, Richard Jewell, his mother Bobi, and eccentric lawyer Watson Bryant who mutually support one another. They are at times despairing of clearing his name, but they persevere. Another important character is Bryant’s Girl Friday Nadya Light (Nina Arianda), whose encouragement of her boss and faith in his client’s innocence helps him over some rough spots when his faith is running low. The film intimates a more than professional relationship exists between the two, and sure enough, the end titles inform us they married each other End titles also inform us that the actual bomber Eric Rudolph was arrested in 2003. As Richard and his lawyer had feared, he set off two more bombs, his motives being anti-abortion and anti-gay beliefs.
Thus, Clint Eastwood’s film must be taken with more than a grain of salt. It probably will not be very high up on the list of his almost 40 films he has directed, but is still worth seeing
Note: For more on Kathy Scruggs click here.
This review will be in the January issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.