There is nothing the least controversial about Clint Eastwood’s terrific Richard Jewell, except to the politically corrected mind. Like another 2019 film panned by the Left, it tells the true story of newsmaking white men and the traditional women in their orbit. But where Ford v. Ferrari got slammed for its portrayal of capitalist toxic males and one’s supportive wife taking on the System, the System — represented by the federal government and the news media, with a sexy female reporter at the head of it — almost destroys the pushover protagonist in Richard Jewell.
Jewell was a portly, savantish Atlanta security guard at the 1996 Olympics who found a backpack loaded with explosives and helped evacuate the target zone just before it blew, saving countless lives. Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell was soon profiled by the FBI as their chief suspect, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs ran with the story. Attorney Watson Bryant protected Jewell through the entire firestorm, as did Jewell’s widowed mother, Bobi, with whom he lived. But even as the case against him began falling apart, the FBI kept pressing it.
Eastwood’s direction is typically craftsmanlike, controlling yet showcasing his superlative cast. The poignant script by Billy Ray mines salient episodes in Jewell’s life — such as his having been a gopher in Bryant’s office, where he got nicknamed “Radar” after the M*A*S*H figure. In a nice human touch evident in this movie, though absent in most other new ones, the briefly high-riding Jewell phones struggling lawyer Bryant to broker a book offer. So when things soon turn ugly for Jewell, Bryant feels he owes him one — a manly code thing that the last surviving Western film icon well understands, though most Hollywood brats have no clue.
But it’s Eastwood’s mastery of suspense that makes a welcome return in the gripping Centennial Park bomb sequence. The star’s surprising Hitchcockian gift marked his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, nearly 50 years ago. Here, he captures the sights and sounds of a time so recent yet culturally distant, with a multi-racial young crowd grooving to a live Kenny Rogers concert, then happily dancing the Macarena, and not a rap song in earshot. This makes the “ticking clock” deadly threat against their wholesome fun all the creepier — and exciting in that only the previously mocked, security-obsessed Jewell can counter it. Such dramatic coherence elevates this sequence, and the whole movie.
Eastwood’s actors deliver as usual. Paul Walter Hauser aces the tough role of the mentally and physically challenged lead. Sam Rockwell hams it up believably as the colorful Bryant, in contrast to an unflappable Jon Hamm as FBI Inspector Tom Shaw. The women more than match the men. Olivia Wilde goes 180 degrees against her girl-power mold (see the ridiculously woke Booksmart, which she directed) playing sexy reporter Kathy Scruggs. Kathy Bates is heartwrenching as Bobi Jewell, trying to defend her son under attack by her TV idols. “Why did Tom Brokaw say that about you?,” she cries. Nina Arianda steals her few scenes as Bryant’s Eastern Bloc refugee assistant–girlfriend, Nadya. With Nadya, Eastwood breaks the modern Hollywood rule (cited by legendary screenwriter William Goldman in his classic book, Adventures in the Screen Trade) of giving only the stars the best lines. He gives Nadya the prize quip: “Where I come from, when people say he’s guilty, he’s innocent.”
This leads to the top two social justice warrior complaints about the film: One, that the portrayal of deceptive FBI agents implicating an innocent man is Eastwood’s MAGA statement, and two, that a woman reporter would use her beauty and sexuality to tap a news source, even sleeping with him. On the first point, Eastwood may prefer Trump to the radical socialist Democrats, but he didn’t change history to prove it (unlike the Cheney-bashing Vice and other liberal pictures). Regarding point two, the late Kathy Scruggs, though not as gorgeous as Olivia Wilde, was quite beautiful, and by many accounts used her sex appeal to advance her career.
I can certify that such female journalists exist. I knew one in my time at the Washington Post. In fact, I wrote my latest novel, Paper Tigers, about her. About the only filmmaker who would cinematize this “controversial” book is Clint Eastwood.