Like American Sniper and Sully, Richard Jewell is Clint Eastwood's latest foray into relaying the stories of the smaller and unsung heroes that quickly arise and fade away in our modern sound-byte paced history. The film closely follows historical events as well as the 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell”, and dramatizes the story of the not-so-stellar career of a well-meaning but over-zealous security guard who found and reported an unattended package in Centennial Park during a concert at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. When the package was found to contain a set of pipe bombs, he helped local law enforcement clear the area before the bomb went off, which ended up saving lives.
At first, he was hailed and interviewed as a hero for his efforts by the news media and local law enforcement, only to have those same two parties turn on him when the FBI, who was treating the bombing as an act of terrorism, begins to investigate Jewell as a possible suspect. When FBI special agent Tom Shaw (played by Jon Hamm) leaks that fact to an ambitious reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution named Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde), a media circus ensues.
The rest of the movie goes on to show how, as in real life, every aspect of Jewell's life, from the most mundane to the more embarrassing, is dragged through the court of public opinion. Only through the efforts of his thick-skinned lawyer Watson Bryant (wonderfully played by Sam Rockwell), his supportive mother, and Jewell's optimistic personality did he make it through the long ordeal of being reviled and mocked in the media for several weeks following the bombing.
In the end, despite special agent Hamm believing that Jewell was guilty of planting the bomb with some other accomplice, he is officially exonerated by the authorities and his life returns to some semblance of normality. In the movie's final moments which take place six years after the Olympic bombing, Bryant is shown visiting Jewell at his new job as a small-town police officer in Georgia.
After catching up with each other, Bryant lets Jewell know that a man named Eric Rudolph had been arrested and had confessed to the Centennial Park bombing. Jewell smiles, for he realizes that now his reputation has been restored in the mind of the public, and that the whole ordeal he had gone through had finally come to an end.
There's Nothing New Under the CNN
Once again Eastwood uses well-acted characters to provide a decent blend of drama and humorous moments to finally tell a historically cathartic version of Richard Jewell's story. To be honest there is not as much drama or tension as the trailers would have you believe, as Paul Hauser's portrayal of Jewell is probably closer to how the man was in real life complete with all of his personal foibles and annoying mannerisms. However, it is one of the strengths of Eastwood's storytelling ability, that he is able to get the audience to root for a character that is in many ways his own worst enemy, but who nonetheless was the legitimate victim of the two most powerful estates of our times: the media and the federal government.
While it is natural to think the term “fake news” as being a product of the Trump era, as history and Richard Jewell clearly demonstrate this was and is not the case. As Bernard Goldberg writes in his 2001 book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes how the Media Distorts the News, at a time when the internet was still in its inchoate stages, the main cable and network news shows, as well as the country's major newspapers, were the gate keepers and arbiters of how truth and facts were reported.
This is why when it came to the reporting of the Jewell case, the mainstream media's quest for ratings dominance as well as their outright disdain for those who today they would happily call “deplorables”, they covered the Jewell case in such a flagrantly antagonistic manner.
The film shows this with a newspaper headline that refers to Jewell as the “Bubba Bomber” or Jay Leno referring to Jewell as the “Unadoofus” (which he did in real life) or NBC's Tom Brokaw claiming without a shred of proof that there was enough evidence to convict Jewell even before the FBI had completed their own investigation. It is unfortunate that the film did not portray or least highlight at the end the fact that Jewell successfully settled with NBC over Brokaw's comments, Leno issued an apology for his remarks, and his successful lawsuits with CNN and the New York Post.
The fact that most of the controversy surrounding the film has been about the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) using sex to get her FBI contact to leak information to her, just shows how spot on the film is on the mainstream media's one-way bias. After all, according to actress Olivia Wilde's own research into Kathy Scruggs, the issue was not whether there was a sexual relationship between Scruggs and an FBI agent (it was a pre-existing romantic relationship), but whether or not there was a quid-pro-quo for the information.
Nevertheless, there is a delightful irony in how all of the major news outlets and new pundits who at the time were perfectly willing to jump the gun and tarnish a man's reputation before all the facts were in, are now quibbling over some minor affront to their own reputation. In this regard, Richard Jewell points a very bright light on the major media outlets who to this day are still jumping the gun on the truth and trying to pass themselves off as the arbiters of truth. It might have worked to a certain extend in the ‘90s, but with the plethora of internet news sites, some of whom are capable of real boots on the ground reporting, it just won't fly today.
The FBI Had Problems Before 2016
Finally, when it comes to the portrayal of the of the FBI, a certain amount of leeway could be retrospectively granted due to the historical context. After all, this was the mid ‘90s, the Cold War as it had been known prior to the fall of the Soviet Union was over, and all those federal resources were freed up to turn their attention to domestic problems that had always been there but had generally been neglected.
However, the debacles at Waco and Ruby Ridge, showed an FBI that had become heavy-handed in how it dealt with these domestic situations. Thus, it was through the lens of domestic terrorism that the FBI investigated the Centennial Park bombing. From this perspective, it would have been standard procedure to investigate Jewell, if only to eliminate him as a suspect.
However, what was not in keeping with the FBI's standard operations was their carelessness with information leaks about how they were going about investigating Jewell. According to FBI special agent Robert Ressler, he was taken aback when he read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's assertion that Jewell fit a certain criminal profile. At the time Ressler, along with FBI special agent John Douglas (author of Mindhunter), had pioneered psychological profiling at the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI, thus he knew that at the time there was no “lone bomber” or “police wannabe” classification or “profile” that Jewell supposedly fit.
In the end, it was more likely the case that Jewell had become the victim of “a web fraught with the weaknesses of a self-protective bureaucracy” of a federal agency that had overplayed its hand one too many times in the ‘90s and yet was unwilling to make any course corrections. Let alone, setting the record straight for the public. And while the times have changed, it appears that some of the operating procedures of the FBI have not.
Certainly 9/11 brought the country together again against a common enemy, and the FBI became engaged in a new kind of cold war against militant Islam. Yet, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan faded from the trending news cycles, domestic discontent and problems began stirring up at home which once again involved or drew the attention of federal law enforcement agencies.
In particular the 00's saw concerns about conspiracy theories about the UN's Agenda 21, federal law enforcement agencies purchasing billions of rounds of ammunition, the droning of American citizens overseas, and of course the revelations of Edward Snowden about our own government spying on us.
All of this was a prelude that came to a head with the disgraced firing of FBI director James Comey as a result of his doings during the 2016 election. This is why Richard Jewell is not only a terrific biopic but a timely movie as well. It is a vivid reminder that when it comes to the key actors in regards to both law and order and truth and facts, there has and still is something that is just not quite right about the way these two estates operate among us today. This is why despite the films poor box office returns, it is striking a nerve with fans and detractors alike and is well-worth seeing.