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Review: Eastwood shakes his fist at media, authority in rocky 'Richard Jewell'

Clint Eastwood uses tale of the '96 Olympic bombing to warn against powers that be

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In "Richard Jewell," director Clint Eastwood recreates the events of the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta to show how an innocent man was falsely accused of committing a heinous act of terror. 

Beyond that, he sets his table with a bias against the media and a disdain for authority — in this case, the FBI — that he lets become the story. Even Jewell himself gets left behind, as Eastwood and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray ("Captain Phillips") don't dig past the already well-known details of his case to uncover anything deeper about the man at the center of the tale. Consider this story ripped from the headlines, if the headlines are 23 years old.

Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in "Richard Jewell."

Saginaw-raised Paul Walter Hauser ("I, Tonya") plays Jewell as a sweet, aw-shucks sorta guy who lives with his mother (Kathy Bates) and wants nothing more than to be an officer of the law.

We first meet him as a supply room worker delivering mail to Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer who affectionately refers to Jewell as "Radar" and treats him with respect, rather than mocking him for his size and portly shape the way everyone else does. 

Ten years later, we catch up with Jewell when he's dismissed from his post as an on-campus security guard for abusing his authority by making traffic stops and harassing students. (The uptight dean of the university is played like something out of "Animal House.")

Jewell takes a job as a security guard during the '96 Atlanta Olympics, in part because of the perks: he can bring his mother to the events's Kenny Rogers concert. But one night while on post he spots a suspicious bag underneath a bench near a concert tower and alerts the proper authorities, helping to clear the area before the bomb goes off. One person was killed in the bomb blast and more than 100 others were injured, but Jewell prevented further loss of life with his clear act of heroism. 

And he's treated as such, at first, at least. The mild-mannered Jewell appears on TV talk shows and is toasted as his courage during the incident. But when the FBI is desperate to find leads on the attacker — particularly agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who was on duty at the scene — Jewell is fingered as a suspect, out of convenience.

Despite a lack of evidence tying him to the crime, Jewell fits the drummed-up profile of the suspect: A loner-type with delusions of grandeur, a checkered past and enough guns underneath his bed to lead Georgia to revolution. And he's a bit of a dimwit, which FBI agents can take advantage of to make a case against him using their Jedi mind tricks, as they're wont to do. (Don't trust your government, kids!) 

Enter Kathy Scruggs, a reporter at the Altanta Journal-Constitution, whom Olivia Wilde plays like a Velociraptor with a notebook. Brassy and unscrupulous, she'll do anything to get the scoop, and she meets up with Shaw at a local watering hole where she milks him for information, which she exchanges for sex.

The characterization of Scruggs has been decried by co-workers and colleagues of Scruggs — the AJC has asked for a disclaimer to be added to the intro of the film — but beyond that bears no resemblance to the way journalism works, or journalists work. It's a tabloid fantasy gone unchecked, informed by the current administration's views of the industry as the "enemy of the people," and leads this supposedly fact-based account into the realm of fantasy land. (There's also a scene where the newsroom toasts Scruggs' front page story that is equally eyeroll-worthy.) 

Jewell, meanwhile, hires Bryant to represent him, and Bryant spends his time trying to get Jewell fired up about the case. Jewell's clearly being railroaded, but is so in awe of the lawmen around him that he inadvertently helps the feds make their case against him, all in the name of cooperation. Meanwhile, there's a media circus unfolding outside of Jewell and his mother's apartment, which carries on for months before the truth emerges. 

There is a fascinating story to be told here, but Eastwood's version is so mired in conspiracy theories and boogeyman fantasies that he turns it into an anti-authoritarian screed. The real Jewell died in 2007 at age 44 (Scruggs, too, passed away), and it would be interesting to know what the case did to him and how it weighed on him in the years after he ceased being national news.

But there's none of that here, as "Richard Jewell" sticks to the case and doesn't bother with the follow-up. Even calling it "Richard Jewell" is a misnomer, as that signifies Eastwood is out to tell Jewell's story. The truth is "Richard Jewell" only pretends to care about the man, and uses him as a symbol to service Eastwood's agenda. Once again, Jewell's a victim. 

'Richard Jewell'

GRADE: C

Rated R: for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images

Running time: 131 minutes 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama