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.