Pop culture’s recent reconsiderations of ’90s tabloid figures have tended to flatter liberals’ belief in the left-leaning arc of the moral universe. Documentaries like O.J.: Made in America (about Simpson) and Lorena (about the Bobbitt case), as well as dramatizations like I, Tonya (as in Harding) and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (as much about prosecutor Marcia Clark as Simpson himself), have excavated histories of abuse and recontextualized the scandals in light of newer, more nuanced understandings of gender, race, and power. But hardly any of these projects, which implicitly celebrate the social progress of the past two decades, hail from conservative points of view. That makes Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, about the Atlanta security guard falsely accused of bombing the 1996 Summer Olympics, a notable exception, if not necessarily a notable film.
Jewell was a victim—of the FBI’s sloppy zeal to catch the criminal, of a merciless media spotlight, and, in Eastwood’s retelling, of his own delusions of grandeur. Played by Paul Walter Hauser (who portrayed similar fantasy-prone mouth-breathers in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman), the fictional Jewell does himself no favors by, as one character puts it, “looking like the kind of guy who might set off a bomb.” But despite its conventional framing, Richard Jewell feels less like a biopic than an assertion of a worldview—a Reaganite one in which the most dangerous threats to well-meaning, ordinary-ish white guys like Jewell are big government and an unscrupulous media. The film’s smartest character, Jewell’s eventual lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), boasts a decidedly pre-9/11 poster in his office: “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” When his Russian-accented assistant (Nina Arianda) muses, “Where I come from, when the government says someone’s guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent,” you know they’re a match made in libertarian heaven. Meanwhile, the fumbling feds are represented by a pompous FBI agent (Jon Hamm, dripping with Don Draper–ish disdain), who’s more than willing to break the law himself to pin the blame on Jewell.
The government gets off relatively easy compared to the fourth estate, the worst of which is distilled into the vampiric newspaperwoman Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who nearly makes Jake Gyllenhaal’s monstrous antihero in Nightcrawler look tame. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray have already come under fire for rehashing the trope of the female journalist who sleeps with her sources—a fundamental ethical breach wantonly attributed to a real-life person who is no longer around to defend herself in this case. But the film’s screeds against tabloid conjecture—which we don’t see Scruggs committing—make her an ill-fitting target, rendering its use of her as a punching bag for everything wrong with the press (including bad writing, glory-seeking, and empty grandstanding) feel gratuitous and cruel.
Richard Jewell doesn’t make this connection, but in another life, its protagonist could’ve been a Kathy Scruggs—someone whose need for drama and attention was actually paired, however tenuously at times, to talent and discipline. Without blaming Jewell himself for the FBI’s focus on him, the film makes law enforcement’s initial concerns about him understandable. In an early scene, he’s fired from a campus security guard job for cracking down on underage drinking with a fanatic’s devotion—and that’s after he’s caught pulling over cars by impersonating a police officer.
It doesn’t help his case that he’s a spottily employed 33-year-old living with his mother (Kathy Bates, excellent in her few scenes) with a vast firearms collection. (It’s Georgia, he shrugs.) Jewell’s eagerness to cooperate with the FBI—he’s in law enforcement too, he can’t help telling them—leaves him vulnerable to the federal agents’ off-book schemes to get him to confess. His grandiosity also makes the epilogue, in which we find out that he fulfilled his lifelong goal of joining a police department, not exactly the happy ending the filmmakers want to sell us.
But if the feds can’t imagine that Jewell doesn’t lead a second life as a domestic terrorist, Eastwood and Ray have apparent difficulty envisioning an inner life for their protagonist. Perhaps that’s why the film plays out as a tidily concocted buddy drama, with Watson teaching Jewell how to be more skeptical toward the men he’s idolized his entire life (especially when they’re after him) and Jewell demonstrating to his grouchy lawyer that you don’t have to settle under a black cloud just because the world is unfair. The filmmakers display hardly any interest in Watson’s efforts to exonerate his client, which the lawyer handily accomplishes with next to no effort.
More diverting is the increasingly desperate forensics the FBI resorts to in order to build a case against Jewell, though it’s not always clear which tactics are simply thorough, now outdated, or flagrantly illegal. But Richard Jewell has so little to say about its time period or how the culture has shifted that it ends up exposing the relative quaintness of its concerns. The real-life Jewell endured a nightmare, but the cautionary tale that the movie inadvertently tells is about only being able to see ancient boogeymen as new monsters continue to emerge.