Clint Eastwood Takes the Mass Media to Task With 'Richard Jewell'

Despite great acting and direction, the movie about the security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb at Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics falters by adhering to reductive rhetoric about how the media is the enemy of the people

Dec 12, 2019 at 9:47 am
click to enlarge Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in 'Richard Jewell' - Photo: Claire Folger/Warner Bros.
Photo: Claire Folger/Warner Bros.
Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in 'Richard Jewell'

Director Clint Eastwood has said that his interest in the story of Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, stems from the fact that it's a "great American tragedy."

That might well be, but despite a great performance from I, Tonya's Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Jewell, the movie's source material just doesn't carry enough weight, and the fact that Eastwood reportedly alters some of the details to vilify and blame the media suggests a conservative motive behind the making of the movie.

Richard Jewell opens area-wide on Friday.

The story begins in the 1980s when Richard meets Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), the lawyer who would come to Richard's aid after he's accused of planting the bomb. Despite the fact that Richard works as a lowly mail clerk, Watson treats him as an equal, and the two even hit the video game arcade together. Richard aspires to work in law enforcement, and he gets the opportunity when a local college hires him as a security guard. Richard, however, takes the job a bit too seriously and even starts pulling over cars on the highway and roughing up college kids drinking in the dorms.

Fired from that gig, he gets another security job working security for the Olympics. When he spots a suspicious backpack one night during a Centennial Park concert, he tells his superiors and saves lives because of his actions. As the first man on the scene, he gets launched into the media spotlight and is initially hailed a hero.

But the mass media giveth, and the mass media taketh away. Because Richard is such a loner with a history of wanting attention, the FBI targets him. And when Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) gets an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to leak that info to her in exchange for sex (something that reportedly never happened), a shit storm of epic proportions rains down on poor Richard. The FBI raids his home, and members of the media camp outside his house. Richard calls his old friend Watson to represent him, and the prickly Watson happily tells both the FBI and the media to leave the guy alone. He also tells Richard that he's got to stand up for himself.

Some of the film's final scenes with Richard, Watson and Richard's mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) are really electric thanks to the terrific actors and Eastwood's solid directing, but it's hard to get behind a movie that ultimately adheres to the reductive rhetoric about how the mass media is the enemy of the people.