Looking at what happened to this one-time awards hopeful

Clint Eastwood’s latest effort, Richard Jewell, should have been a prime awards competitor this past season when it made its debut in December. However, the film was met with lukewarm reviews and a sea of controversy thanks to character portrayals and supposed political stances. Even the reviews which lauded the film could only do so much, as it failed to even make back its $45 million budget. For those unaware, the movie offers up a true retelling of the story of the titular security guard (Paul Walter Hauser), who managed to save many lives after discovering a bomb during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Initially branded a hero, it wasn’t long before an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) and a hungry reporter (Olivia Wilde) would paint him as the crime’s prime suspect. With only his supportive mother (Kathy Bates) and determined attorney (Sam Rockwell) by his side, Richard Jewell weathered one of the most intense public opinion trials in American history as he fought to preserve his name and his innocence.

Controversy took almost no time at all to show up, even before Richard Jewell had been properly released, thanks to the depiction of Kathy Scruggs, the reporter played by Wilde. In one of the film’s key scenes, Kathy is seen as seducing and propositioning Agent Tom Shaw (Hamm) into giving her Richard’s name as the suspected bomber. The scene ends with the two leaving the bar they’re in to find somewhere quiet, presumably to have sex. An outcry emerged on social media almost instantly, which blasted the filmmakers of Richard Jewell for what many felt was a blatant and false mistreatment of a woman who was no longer around to defend herself (Scruggs died in 2001). Those involved with the movie (including Wilde) unanimously stated that their intent was not to portray Scruggs as someone who repeatedly used her sexuality to further her career and pointed to research they had each conducted which showed that not only was this not a common practice for Scruggs, but that there was possible evidence of a previous sexual relationship between the couple away from the job. The scene remains in the film, and while it doesn’t serve to show either character in their best light, it symbolizes the hunger and ruthlessness Scruggs possessed and that nothing was going to stop her from finding out what she needed to know. In a later scene, after having greatly helped to turn Jewell’s life into a media circus-fueled hell, Scruggs approaches Shaw again once she discovers that Jewell couldn’t have possibly committed the tragedy. When Shaw says he knows this, Scruggs goes from potentially wanting to clear Jewell’s name to demanding she be told the name of the man the FBI suspects was his accomplice, at one point virtually threatening to smear the agency by reporting they’ve got the wrong guy. While vastly different from the scene that made people talk, both have the same aim: to show the character’s ruthlessness at getting the story she felt was the truth by whatever means necessary.

A couple of the weeks after Richard Jewell came out, I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while for some coffee time. I mentioned that I had caught the movie as part of the studio’s FYC package and was about to tell her my thoughts when she shut me down and made it very clear that she had no interest in either seeing the film nor hearing anything about it. My friend cited the treatment of the Wilde character, naturally, but went on to proclaim that the bigger issue (at least according to her) was the supposed Republican agenda inserted into the film by its director. Watching the film the first time, such an idea never really occurred to me. I can see how such a suspicion is conjured up, especially given Eastwood’s staunch Republican loyalty. Yet such views never really make their way into the film. Eastwood may be one of the party’s most notable conservatives, but he’s also famously been anti-establishment in the days since he first became a “name.” It’s no wonder that the villains of Richard Jewell are the United States government and the media, two of the most powerful establishments in all of modern society. Richard Jewell has been made during a time which has seen both the government and the media at the greatest of odds. But here they are seen as two impenetrable wielders of power in cahoots with one another. Throughout the film they are presented as being on the lookout for the best possible scapegoat they could find for the crime everyone was pressuring to have solved. If Richard and his mother Bobbi (Bates) are victims of these institutions, there’s one character who perhaps echoes Eastwood’s longtime views towards these forces best. From his first scene, Watson Bryant (Rockwell), Jewell’s attorney, is shown to be libertarian, never once trusting either the media nor the FBI, and does everything in his power to convince his client that he is in a David and Goliath situation and that in order to win, he needs to fight for his own name.

Everyone is fantastic in Richard Jewell. Rockwell, Wilde, and Hamm have all done their homework when it comes to uncovering the nature of the characters they are playing and their roles in the aftermath which followed the tragic events. Each performer deepens the movie with turns which feel incredibly grounded in the true-life reality that makes up Richard Jewell. Yet it’s Bates (who, incidentally, scored the movie’s sole Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress) and Hauser who really give the movie it’s life. Their moments as mother and son are so tender and heartbreaking, filled with the kind of richness that makes the story as compelling and quietly harrowing as it is.

Sure, there are more important stories of consequence out there which are begging to be told, and the fact that they aren’t is an ongoing shame. But Richard Jewell contains a meaning, purpose, and value all its own. If the real story of Richard Jewell was a presage of the world we live in today with the current cancel culture, the film version is a direct mirror of a present-day society always looking for a witch to burn at the stake, regardless of whether or not they’re guilty. With more of a slant towards the emotional impact on the characters, rather than a straight up chronicling of the events in question, Eastwood’s film operates best as a tribute to Jewell; the quintessential forgotten man who proved himself to be the perfect lamb to send to the slaughter. One of the most harrowing examples of the dangers of public opinion, Richard Jewell still works as both a lesson and (in this day and age) a test in pure empathy.

Richard Jewell is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Entertainment.

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