After a pipe bomb exploded at a concert held to celebrate the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, the FBI came to suspect that the security guard who discovered the device might have planted it to gain a reputation as a hero. The knotty story of that security guard, Richard Jewell, does not lend itself easily to a movie, so kudos to Clint Eastwood for making an excellent one from it anyway. Eastwood’s latest, Richard Jewell, is a strange, sordid, untidy story that doesn’t make the mistake of leveraging the truth in the service of clichés. To a degree that’s unusual for a year-end, Oscar-bait studio movie, it revels in complexity. In the figure of a fat, obtuse, grandstanding weirdo, Eastwood has built an apt metaphor for tangled, frustrating reality.
The thing to know about Jewell before you know anything else is that he didn’t do it; the FBI never had any evidence against him and never should have leaked his name to the press. If it hadn’t, Jewell, who died in 2007, would’ve been spared the humiliation he underwent and I would have been spared some hassle; as a rewrite man at the New York Post, I was among several reporters whose news outlets were sued by Jewell for defamation for our coverage of the story. The Post settled the suit for an undisclosed sum. Similar suits were settled by NBC News and CNN. The one news organization that decided to incur massive costs and fight the matter all the way was the one responsible for first identifying Jewell as a focus of the FBI investigation: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The AJC spent 15 years in litigation, maintaining, accurately, that although Jewell turned out to be innocent its reports also did not meet America’s libel standards, which are rightly strict. It finally got the suit dismissed in 2011, four years after Jewell’s death. There was no reckless disregard for the truth here.
I mention all this to steer you away from any notion that the Jewell case is a simple parable of injustice. It’s more like a lesson in availability bias, how a plausible notion becomes difficult to dislodge once it takes root. Everybody portrayed in Eastwood’s film behaves understandably given what their jobs are: The FBI — personified by Jon Hamm’s character, Tom Shaw, a composite — wants to nab a killer and finds red flags in the first place it looks. (As Hamm’s character points out, just twelve years earlier, at the last American Olympics in Los Angeles, an L.A. cop had planted an explosive device on a bus in order to portray himself as a hero.) The press — the late AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs is played by Olivia Wilde — wants a sensational story, yes, but also wants to accurately report on what the FBI thinks. As for Jewell, who is portrayed with an impeccable mix of pathos, self-aggrandizement, numb disbelief, and eagerness to please by Paul Walter Hauser in one of the year’s most finely wrought lead performances, he creates problems for himself by being too helpful to the FBI. All of these people are on at least some level doing what they’re supposed to do, and yet Jewell gets dragged through the wringer, injured in ways that can never be repaired. So does his mother (Kathy Bates), with whom he lives. She finds FBI men pawing through her underwear drawer and Disney videocassettes.
Richard Jewell is disarmingly candid about how its subject did so many strange things that it was entirely reasonable to wonder whether he was telling the truth about the bombing. He has gone down in history as a hero smeared as a villain, but Eastwood isn’t interested in fitting him for a halo. In the movie, Jewell is a general busybody and pest; it’s striking how comparatively lax security was everywhere in the pre-9/11 era, and just how unusual it was for anyone to think an unattended backpack was anything to fret about. Jewell worried about it because, as Billy Ray’s astute script shows, he was always poking his nose into everything. Early in the film, he enters a college dorm room uninvited, a nightstick in hand, to berate some students for drinking beer. Even after Jewell becomes a person of interest in the case, his lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), is stunned by his behavior. Everything about him seems off.
Rockwell is outstanding here, but then he always is. His Bryant is something of a dinged-up character himself. He’s rude and dismissive to Jewell when they first meet, and reacts incredulously when Jewell fails to grasp the legal danger he’s in. Does Jewell really keep a piece of the bench that was blown up as a souvenir? Does he really have a hollowed-out hand grenade? Yes, and yes. He also has a huge arsenal of firearms. Rockwell is priceless as Bryant’s frustration builds. During one tense moment, Jewell waddles over to his kitchen counter and Bryant yells, “Richard, you go for a cookie right now, I’m gonna chop off your hands and shove ’em up your a**.”
The film makes for a weird, scary, funny jumble, as messy as its source material. Eastwood, who began his career playing mythic types, has now made seven consecutive films based on real people. As he demonstrated brilliantly with last year’s effort, The Mule, in which his character was both a drug runner and a horrible father and yet somehow earned our sympathy, he is fascinated with the difficult cases. In Hollywood he is leading a stealth resistance to the lazy message movies that reassure us that this or that group is evil and this or that group comprises hapless victims. Hamm is a superb choice to play an FBI man: Handsome, tough, resourceful, and dedicated, he nevertheless gives off the sense of a guy who might cut a corner or two to nab a culprit.
Where the movie is unfair is in its portrait of Kathy Scruggs, whom Wilde plays as a breezy, bitchy floozy; she even sleeps with the FBI man to get information. There’s no reason to think this happened. It’s also a woeful, sexist cliché that implicitly calls into question the work and ethics of female reporters in general. You’d think a movie about smeared reputations would grasp this. Still, Wilde’s portrayal has some basis in fact: Scruggs, who died in 2011, was a “wild child,” as revealed by her own newspaper. Police once responded to a 3 a.m. call and found her drunk and naked behind the wheel of a taxi, according to the AJC’s recent profile. As Jewell was and Eastwood himself is, she was . . . complicated. There are no real heroes or villains in this story, just real people doing tough jobs.