RICHARD JEWELL Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony gets swept away with the crowd.

Clint Eastwood has a long history as a director, from Play Misty For Me to Unforgiven and through to Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters of Iwo Jima, Billion Dollar Baby, J Edgar, Sully, and more.

In recent years, Eastwood has shown a particular gift for bringing out the humanity and the social philosophy of a particular type of person – conservative, rigorous, devoted to doing their job, but brought into the public eye by intense media interest, and frequently, ultimately bitten by the would-be hero-makers when they tired of the heroic narrative. In Sully, he showed how the press interest in the actions of conscientious pilot Chelsey Sullenberger first created ‘the hero of the Hudson’ after Sullenberger landed a plane in a river, rather than crashing it and killing everyone on board, then turned to suspect him, as the events of the landing were drawn into question and put before the National Transportation Safety Board. Ultimately, Sullenberger was entirely cleared of any wrongdoing and his actions were once more regarded in their proper light – as professional, instinctual, and ultimately heroic, using his training to save lives and protect people from harm.

Richard Jewell, Eastwood’s latest, could be said to be tracing similar ground to Sully – the movie tells the story of what happened to Jewell, a security guard at Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Always somewhat officious, Jewell had been bounced around the world of local law enforcement, bumped down to rule enforcement as a security guard after many complaints against him, and was on duty when a bomb went off in the park. In fact, he’s credited with being the person who first spotted the discarded backpack which contained the bomb, and called attention to it.

In the immediate aftermath, his vehemence that the backpack be properly checked and disposed of was picked up by the media, and a narrative of heroism was spun out of his actions – understandably, because a nation needs a hero in the wake of either potentially catastrophic mechanical failure, as in Sully, or deliberate, targeted attack, as in Centennial Park. The nation needs to have that focal point for relief and gratitude that something dreadful didn’t happen, or at least, when it did, that it wasn’t a whole lot worse. It’s a public need to have a hero in those moments, and by virtue of seeming like the most average American alive, having done his job and done it well, and probably having saved some lives in that park that night, Richard Jewell became ‘It’ for the Centennial Park bombing. But then, enter the FBI with a theory which would drag Jewell, his family and friends through the trauma of trial by media – the theory of the wannabe-hero, the stager of disasters precisely so they can be lauded, popular, king of the limelight.

In Eastwood’s movie, there are clear lines of demarcation between good guys and bad guys which are probably not anything like as clear cut in real life. One thing is crystal clear with hindsight though – Richard Jewell had nothing to do with planting the bomb, and everything to do with discovering it and trying to keep as many people safe as possible.

He did absolutely nobody any favours in terms of trying to prove that though. He insisted on describing himself as being ‘in law enforcement’ – which made investigators hostile at the comparison between the unhealthy Jewell and themselves, and also made them keen to see him as the ‘wannabe-cop’ who would do anything for the acclaim that might get him back into the police force. He was a hunter in Atlanta, and so he had a lot of guns, which to at least half the country in the Clinton era meant he was already a dangerous would-be vigilante. He held conservative views on law and order, even while being investigated by the forces of law and order. He was overweight, spoke slowly (though always thoughtfully), and lived alone with his mother. In other words, he was someone who, once it was over its moment of shock and hero-need, the country was much more comfortable thinking of as a loser, as a villain, as a potential murderer even, than a hero.

As we said, Eastwood’s movie is fairly uncompromising in its division of the world into heroes and villains – those who support Jewell are heroes, and as time goes on also victims, while those who cast him as a would-be terrorist are the villains. While this is undoubtedly the way to best tell this story, there’s something overly black and white in the way it’s portrayed here, with the principal villains being the flippant and probably rule-breaking FBI agent Tom Shaw (played by John Hamm), who remained steadfastly convinced throughout that Jewell was the perpetrator of the bomb attack, and most particularly Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), the journalist who – in Eastwood’s version at least – traded details for sex and first set the media’s hounds loose after the bewildered and still law-and-order-positive Jewell.

If that element of the characterisation is somewhat clunky, at least Eastwood is a skilled storyteller in his direction, allowing – and showing – some of Jewell’s history of officious rule-breaking and overzealousness in applying laws and rules, going way beyond his actual authority, so convinced was he of his ‘law enforcement’ remit and his duty to stop bad things from happening, even to the extent of acting pre-emptively. Eastwood, and engaging performances from Paul Walter Hauser (Jewell), Kathy Bates (Barbara Jewell, his mother), and Sam Rockwell (somewhat oddly cast as Watson Bryant, Jewell’s lawyer and friend) draw you in to what is – from the film’s point of view, and therefore that of the viewer – the obvious truth of Jewell’s professional service ethos, as far removed from blowing people up for fame and fortune as it is possible to be. Contrasted with that, Eastwood and writer Billy Ray show the development of the hero image in the wake of the bombing, the poisoning of the well of Jewell’s image by Scruggs and Shaw, the rapid turn-around of press and public opinion on Jewell, and how the press, the public, and the enforcers of the law, when they get their hunches and their stories wrong, can be a powerfully dangerous combination, especially when their screaming fury is turned on an individual who it suits the narrative of the public mood to be a villain, rather than a hero or even an ordinary professional, diligently doing the job they’re paid to do.

Jewell is not made overly likeable, but he’s made sufficiently ordinary to invite the viewer to consider how they would behave in his place, which gives the film a real accessibility. And not without reason has Kathy Bates nabbed an Oscar nomination for this movie – every scene in which she features belongs to her, except when, as Jewell’s overly proud and ego-stroking mother, she has the nous to give the scene away to others. But as is true of most every movie she stars in, when Kathy Bates wants your eyes and your attention on her, you’d better believe you’re not going to be looking anywhere else.

That Eastwood’s interpretation of the Richard Jewell case feels like it has a message is not accidental. That the message is about the danger of a press hungry for stories, and thus hungry for scoops irrespective of the lives they wreck in the getting of them might, overall, be judged somewhat unfair, and certainly it’s by no means a US-only issue (The UK’s press and police had a similar feeding frenzy in 2010 with the case of Christopher Jefferies, questioned for the murder of Joanna Yeates, seemingly on the grounds that everyone around him thought he was a bit odd. He was ultimately released without charge, though his name had been blackened in the national press).

But if it might be somewhat unfair to the press, and while it might technically be libellous of the particular journalist at the heart of the case, it’s worth noting that Eastwood’s message in itself is a good and a fair one – that we have a hunger for the persecution of particular types of people, and that we – through the press, and sometimes, more dangerously, through the forces of justice – act like a mob scenting blood and dark motives rather than believing in simple goodness, simple duty, or even simple professionalism as our baseline. And that innocent people can be made to suffer as a result of that.

It does society no harm at all to be reminded of things like this. And if you’re going to be reminded of things like this, Eastwood’s Richard Jewell is an engaging story with which to do it, told and shown through compelling performances and a signature storytelling style that has yet to fail one of America’s most hit-heavy directors.

Check out Richard Jewell, and give people the benefit of the doubt more.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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