Richard Jewell

Let’s get the film’s big criticism right up front. The screenwriter and director are accused of slandering the name of the dead journalist who first publicly pointed a finger at Richard Jewell as the Olympic Bomber. Kathy Scruggs as portrayed by Olivia Wilde in the film, was a hard charging, not very bashful crime reporter who was looking for a “scoop” so to speak in the case that took place in the town she worked in. The irony of a journalist being besmirched by innuendo in a piece of  dramatic entertainment, when in a newspaper she did the same thing to an innocent man is not lost on most of us. The inference that she offered sex for a tip to an FBI agent is a fictional speculation of how she obtained this inside information. She never revealed her source, and in fact was nearly jailed for refusing to do so by a judge.  It is reported that she was a somewhat wild figure in the confluence of police and journalists on her beat. The screenwriter put two and two together and came up with a dramatic tool to show us how she might have done it. Miss Scruggs has been dead for 18 years so it is legally not possible to slander her. Richard Jewell was publicly accused by her stories, without anything more than a piece of gossip, and he was alive to be roasted by the ensuing firestorm. Let’s suppose for a moment that the come on from Miss Scruggs was left out of the film, would what happened to Richard Jewell be any less tragic? No, but the character of the reporter would have no way of claiming to have an informant. That is a plot hole that should not exist in a well told story. It is a two minute scene in a film that more than two hours in length. People judging the movie based on this is disproportionate.

Having set that aside for the moment, the film itself is very effective at recalling the time and place of the events depicted. There is a substantial opening act that shows us who Richard Jewell was. He seems to have been overly enthusiastic in his pursuit of doing right. The campus security job he has is lost because he does what is asked of him but it conflicts with what is within his scope. You don’t get the impression that he is motivated by power or the notion that he is in control, in other words he is not the “asshole” that he is warned not to become. He just wants to follow procedure and have people be protected. He continues to believe in what he sees as being right.

Anyone in a position of authority is likely to ruffle some feathers. It is easy to make an inference that a police officer is getting off on their power, especially when you are the one on the other end. I know I have felt that way a couple of times in casual contact with police. It goes the other way as well, people instinctively react to the perceived power of the police. The idea that there is a profile and you are being judged by that is a reality. The accuracy of such a profile still needs to be verified, and this film shows the FBI struggling to fulfill their own prophesy. The trailer lays out the problem here immediately, the two most powerful forces in the world are basically trying to nail Jewell for something he did not do.

Anyone watching the political scene these days will get flashes of deja vu because this stuff goes on constantly today. The FBI seems to have a number of troublesome issues that have been disclosed over the last fifty years, and the political element has been one that continues to be prevalent. The media is a little sensitive about being called out when they are indulging in speculation about the facts. The righteousness of journalists can’t change the truth, sometimes they get it wrong. This was certainly one of those places.

Clint Eastwood continues to be one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. This story builds very effectively and we don’t even get to the bombing until the second act. The section where all of the attack plays out is effectively staged and there is real tension as the bomb is discovered and the authorities, including Jewell try to deal with it. This sequence shows how Richard Jewell’s strong desire to be a law enforcement officer is a good thing. His insistence on following the protocols probably saved dozens of lives, which makes his subsequent vilification all the more unjust. Sure the FBI needs to follow every lead, but to ignore exculpatory information, in pursuit of a profile that is thin to begin with is preposterous.  The fact that the journalist is shown to believe this well before the bureau is an attempt to rehabilitate her character as well.

Sam Rockwell continues to show that he is a leading actor in a character actors clothes. He plays the attorney defending Jewell as the professional skeptic he needed to be. He brings the rage that the deferential suspect seems incapable of displaying. At times that disgust has to be directed at his client who seems programmed to sabotage himself at every turn. Paul Walter Hauser deserves accolades for not only resembling Jewell but for showing us the hopes, and frustrations of the title character. We can see that he is flawed, but Hauser makes him sympathetic at every turn, even when he does the stupid things his attorney advises against. Kathy Bates has one scene that presents some histrionics but she still undersells the moment so her character remains real and completely sympathetic. Jewell’s Mother is collateral damage in this process, another example of how the great forces of the law and press can grind someone down indirectly.

Much is being made about the lack of success for this film at the moment. If you are skipping it because it seems too political, you are making a mistake. It simply points out the real danger that anyone, regardless of their politics could fall into. If the controversy about the presentation of the journalist discourages you, remember that it is a film, and with dramatization some narrative tools work, whether we believe they are fair or not. There are some great performances and a compelling story here, don’t skip it because of misdirected desire for purity. Story telling is what movies are about, and this one tells a hell of a story, and does so well.

 

The Mule

The man is 88 years old and still working hard to make good films. I skipped the first of his 2018 movies, the poorly reviewed “15:17 to Paris”. I was initially interested in seeing it, but the reviews were so bad that even the idea of the actual heroes playing themselves was not enough to induce me. This film does not any gimmick to it, it simply has the one essential plus that could over power any doubts; Clint is acting in the movie. In addition to directing, which has been his main focus for the last decade, he has come out of semi-retirement as on on-screen presence to deliver a performance to potentially cap off his amazing career.

It’s unlikely that he will receive Awards attention, he will be stereotyped as playing a character that he is, an old man. That character can also be seen as not to distinct from Walt in “Grand Torino”, a man who today’s generation would see as a racist because of the generation he grew up in. He is also likely to be ignored because he has crossed some lines that politically are Hollywood landmines. Regardless of whether he gets some professional accolades, I’m willing to give him some personal ones. For most of his career, he has played steel willed characters with a streak of sardonic humor. He keeps the humor for this part but adds some personal weaknesses and doubts. A lot like his character in “Million Dollar Baby”, Earl, the ninety year old drug mule in this film, struggles to connect with family and sees the most selfish impulses as the easiest ones to choose. His stubbornness is the real reason the title describes him. Earl has always done things his own way, and the fact that it might inconvenience his cartel employers is one lesson he has trouble learning.

The fun and personable aspects of Earl’s character are shown in the early scenes of his horticulturalist success, and later in the film as he parties with the drug lords. Clint manages to make a flinty old man a subject of amusement and charm. At the same time, we see that he recognizes some of his faults. There is an opening scene where he should be reminded of his own daughter’s wedding, and he brushes it off without a second thought. Towards the end of the film, we get to see that he can’t do that anymore. He sincerely wants to be there for his mostly ignored family. The facial expressions on his phone call with his granddaughter are contained looks that are appropriate for the character and the film. When Clint plays against Diane Wiest as his former wife, you can see the frustration she feels, but the aura of sadness and realization and defensiveness that Earl feels is palatable.  There is a slightly manufactured scene where Earl comes across his counterpart, a younger version of himself, someone who is driven to succeed but may be doing so at the expense of his family. As he offers advice, the voice contains the weariness that should tell the younger man that this is a man with the kind of experience to learn from.

Although this is a family drama, the crime elements are barely in second place. We care about this head strong, recklessly casual nonagenarian. He jokes with the guys he is taking the drugs from, and we laugh as he struggles to figure out texting, or makes ethnically insensitive jokes with the wrong guys. You will almost certainly smile when Dean Martin is crooning and the gang is all a part of it, but when the timetable is upset or the actions of a uptight handler threaten Earl, you will feel tension and that is exactly the kind of thing that a director like Eastwood knows. He plays a old man, in over his depth, who is trying to get by on the same charm that works with his VA buddies and his friends, but we know that that is not the audience he is playing to, and disaster is on the horizon.

The cast is thick with talent, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia are all in small but valuable roles. Diane Wiest has only a few scenes but she shows again that she is one of the most talented character actors working. She is twenty years younger than Clint but you will not sense that difference in their performances. The cast that plays the drug cartel drones is chosen for their looks but they also are capable. Eastwood has picked an interesting story, put together an involving drama, and turned in a effective performance and he has done it as he himself is approaching Earl’s age. We should all be so talented and full of ambition.

Sully

Tom Hank”s character, the real life hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, has a fortune cookie fortune that he looks at in one scene of this film. “Better a delay than a disaster”.  I feel a little bit as if this describes my relationship with the movie, I wanted to see it but put it off for almost a month. After the screening, I felt as if it would have been a disaster if I’d missed this movie. This is a film and a story right up my alley. It is a true life drama, with a humble hero and a group of people who all did whatr they were supposed to do. The outcome is one of the amazing stories of modern aviation.

Having recently listened to a lengthy podcast in which the work of director Clint Eastwood was somewhat criticized, I may have lowered my expectations a bit. I did think “Jersey Boys” was a misfire but “American Sniper” was an effective film about the Iraq war and the toll it took on multiple people. It was dramatically shot and there are some incredibly tense scenes in it. This film is directed in a straightforward manner as is most of Eastwood’s work. The fact that the near disaster at the center of the story remains clear and coherent is mostly a result of choices the director made about how to film it. One criticism that came up was that the side stories that explored some of Sully’s background were confusing in time and story placement, well I did not find that to be the case at all. [That is mostly the screenwriter’s responsibility]. There is a little bit of ambiguity about the process of the NTSB and how long that hearing process took, but that is hardly confusing to the story.

I did think that the script went a bit of a ways to create drama from the investigation but you have to have a little dramatic license to give the film a narrative backbone. The real themes of this film are about self doubt and doing your job. Until Arron Eckhart and Tom Hanks know what the voice recorder and aviation data reveal, there is enough doubt for even a confident man to wonder if something else could have been done. “Sully” and co-pilot Jeff Skiles knew they did the right things but only from the inside. There is plenty of PTSD to go around between them, but except for some nightmares about what might have happened if they had acted differently, we all feel confident as well.

The other theme of this movie was well expressed at the end by Captian Sullenberger when he deferred credit. It was not he alone who was the X factor. Every crew member did their job well. The cabin crew remained calm as they prepared the passengers, the passengers followed directions and helped each other, the ferry captains acted immediately and saved lives by doing so, the water rescue tem from the NYPD was in place and doing their jobs as well. I recommended another Aaron Eckhart film from a few years ago based on the same premise. “Battle L.A.” may not be a great movie, but it was great at showing how when people work together, and do their jobs to the best of their ability, the outcome is more likely than not to be success.

Hanks and Eckhart both are low key and credible as the professionals who made a difference that day on the Hudson and above. They also rock those mustaches that the real heroes appear to favor. Laura Linney as Sully’s wife does not get to do much more than talk on the phone, but it worked pretty well as a dramatic device, especially that first call after the landing. The technical crew who shot the effects and then put together a set to work on in the water are deserving of some respect as well. This was a very realistic depiction of the “forced water landing”.  In the long run, the movie does not have deep messages to impart to us, it just gives us a good condensed version of events that we can marvel at and appreciate, as we look at real people who deserve to be called heroes, even if they don’t see themselves that way.

Back to the Future Trilogy

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OK, this is a good way to start the New Year on a movie blog. Last night I had the chance to see the three films from Robert Zemekis that cemented his position as the most commercial director of the 1980s outside of Steven Spielberg, who of course was a producer on all three films himself. This was a digital presentation at the Egyptian Theater and the house was packed. I saw several attendees wearing down vests and one guy with Griff’s hat on from the second movie. It is now 2015 and that was the year in the future that Marty and Doc went to to try and straighten out Marty’s kids. Unfortunately we don’t have the Hoverboards, Flying cars and self tying shoes predicted in the film, but we do have skype, flatscreen TVs, Google Glass, and more channel choices that someone could watch at the same time than anyone should find necessary.

Back to the Future 1This will not be a full review on each film but rather just a quick recap and a few comments. These movies are pretty well known and are beloved by millions. The first in the series is one of the great pop entertainment surprises ever. While the follow ups struggle to achieve the same kind of magic as the original, they manage to do the one thing that every consumer of films wants, entertain us.

back_to_the_future_ver2The original film roared out of no where in 1985 to incredible popular success and made Michael J. Fox an entertainment icon rather than simply a good character on a successful TV show. The cleverness of the concept and it’s execution are hard to match. This film is funny, exciting and it manages to raise our awareness of family history and it’s significance along the way. While Fox is clearly the star, the secret weapon in this film is Christopher Lloyd, who got laughs from an intake of breath and a bug eyed scream. He manages to make some of the slapstick work where so often it does not in modern films. I will also mention that Lea Thompson is best used in this film and she does the “good girl with a bad side” 50s character just perfectly. She is also strikingly attractive in the film.

back_to_the_future_part_ii_ver3Four years later, the second film was released at the Thanksgiving holidays. It was a success but came nowhere close to matching the original box office draw of it’s predecessor. Maybe too much time had elapsed or maybe it is the sour tone of the movie. Fox is still great, but the complicated movement between time periods and the inconsistency of some of the rules make it a little sloppy. Having to invent a character fault in Marty, in order to justify the story line is also a bit frustrating. Thomas Wilson as Biff/Griff does a great job in building his malignant character, but because the movie uses him in such cartoony ways and so frequently, the movie feels shrill. Doc Brown gets short shrift in this chapter of the story and Elizabeth Shue, as the new Jennifer, is put to sleep a third of the way into the movie and does not return until the coda of the third film. When I first saw this thirty years ago, it was a bit of a letdown. Last night however, it was pure joy. The future sequences play even more effectively now that we are in 2015 and the suspense bits still work. While I feel as if this is the weakest of the three films, that does not mean it is not a success. There is plenty here to enjoy.

back_to_the_future_part_iiiThe third chapter was awkwardly set up in the second film, but once it gets started it works just fine and it feels seamless rather than forced. The historical context is fun and the western tropes that are lampooned were amusing. Marty adopts the “Man with No Name” persona, and gives him a name, Clint Eastwood. The fact that Clint was a big star at the time but also the only star who tried to keep Westerns alive during the 80s was a big whoop for film fans. Familiar Western character actors are sprinkled through the film and the gulf between the real west and the movie west is explored just a bit. The addition of Mary Steenburgen to the cast was a nice touch and gives Doc a great conclusion to his story. Watch Wilson copy Lee Marvin from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” in his portrayal of “Mad Dog Tannen”. He gets the walk, swagger and body movement just right, and in case you missed it, he carries a riding crop in his non-shooting hand. This was a simpler version of the time travel story and it effectively wrapped up the story lines they had created in the second movie. The fact that the two sequels were shot simultaneously saved some money and allowed this film to be released just seven months after the second installment.

Back to the Future 2A pleasant evening was had by all and I am much more ready to come back to these films than I have been for a while. They really were terrific entertainment even when there are some issues in the time story sequences.