On July 7, 1996, while Atlanta was hosting the Summer Olympic Games, a security guard named Richard Jewell spotted an unattended backpack beneath a bench during a concert at the city’s Centennial Park. Jewell quickly notified authorities and was in the process of pushing the crowd back when a pipe bomb filled with nails (intended to cause maximum casualties) went off. One woman died of her injuries, a man suffered a fatal heart attack, and scores of people were severely wounded. Despite the casualties, there’s little doubt that Jewell’s vigilance saved many lives. The story might have ended there for Jewell — with honors, TV interviews, and the good kind of celebrity — had FBI agents, with few suspects, not gotten hung up on the idea that the socially awkward, overweight male who lived with his mother and had botched several attempts to become a full-fledged police officer had planted the bomb himself so that he could discover it and become a hero. A version of that scenario had in fact gone down two years earlier in Los Angeles, and Jewell fit the FBI bomber “profile” (something to remember while watching the heroes of the TV series Mindhunter develop their so-called science). After the FBI leaked their suspicions to an Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter, Jewell (along with his mother) spent three months under siege by the media, his guilt widely presumed despite the FBI’s lack of evidence to charge him. The FBI didn’t make too big a deal when he was cleared. Most people would remember the accusations, not the outcome.
This enraging episode is the basis for the new Clint Eastwood drama, Richard Jewell, which puts a distinctive spin on the story. The actual bomber, Eric Rudolph, a right-wing, anti-abortion homophobe whose killing spree would continue, is named only once, in passing, and his likely ties to Christian militias and white supremacists go unmentioned. (Rudolph, in prison for life, remains a hero in those circles.) That omission could be justified on the grounds that Rudolph’s story is largely unrelated to Jewell’s — although most filmmakers would assume their audience’s desire to know who had committed the act of terrorism they’d just witnessed, not to mention the reasons. Not Eastwood. He has been drawn to narratives in which ordinary people make heroic, split-second decisions, and even more to stories in which ordinary people make heroic, split-second decisions and come under threat from zealous government agencies and the press. In Sully, Eastwood turned the world’s least controversial outfit — the National Transit Safety Board, tasked with determining the cause of terrible accidents in hopes of preventing further ones — into parasites intent on ruining the pilot who had saved every “soul” on his plane. Eastwood’s mind is marinated in the paranoia and grandiosity of Ayn Rand, for whom extraordinary individuals were reliably under fire by unimaginative government regulators in collusion with the press. He takes this stuff real seriously. During a successful run for mayor of Carmel, California, in the ’80s, Eastwood compared enforcement of zoning laws to Hitler pounding on innocent peoples’ doors. He got the zoning laws changed before the pogroms could commence.
To tell Jewell’s story his way, Eastwood needs a new enemy of the people, and this turns out to be a Journal Constitution reporter named Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. By all accounts, Scruggs (who can no longer sue for libel, being deceased) was a flamboyant, sharp-elbowed investigative journalist who loved the job and the lifestyle. The script by Bill Ray shows her going the extra mile, pressing herself in a bar against Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), one of the lead FBI agents, and putting her hand on his crotch. Give me a name, she says, and you can have me. It would be easy to attack the actress, who plays Scruggs as borderline insane, sashaying around with her tongue half out of her mouth, but that’s not my inclination: Wilde landed a juicy role under a director whose actors win Oscars and she went for it — perhaps trusting Eastwood would pull her back if the portrait of Scruggs became too degrading. Vain hope. In reality, the FBI had no problem leaking Jewell’s name and confirming it to the media, likely out of desperation and sheer incompetence. It wasn’t the result of an unscrupulous woman reporter stroking a drunken agent’s cock, both people fancying themselves destined for greater things and eager to advance by any means necessary. In the media scrum, Scruggs takes the persecution to the next level, asking, “If he’s innocent then why is the FBI here?”
To those who object to my dwelling on the movie’s politics, I can only say that it’s Eastwood who has twisted the story to suit his ends. The sad thing is that he didn’t need to — he has plenty of good material, and his direction is fluid and unfussy. He and his screenwriter wisely suggest that the idea of Jewell (played by Paul Walter Hauser) planting the bomb was not entirely absurd. Jewell has a touch of authoritarianism, a tendency to be extra attentive to the smallest infractions: He doesn’t pick his battles to prevent unnecessary scenes. (I don’t mean to impugn Jewell — a hero — but there is a connection between his mindset as portrayed here and people like Michael Drejka, who drove around parking lots checking cars in handicapped spots and wound up convicted for manslaughter after provoking an altercation.) Hauser gives an extraordinary, non-actorish performance, underscoring that Jewell wasn’t an actor — that his affect was flat and a bit know-it-all and didn’t play well on TV. Kathy Bates, who can chew scenery with the best of ’em, expertly tunes her performance to Hauser’s: low-key, bitter, resentful that the world has not recognized their worth.
Ray has crafted wonderful scenes between Hauser and Sam Rockwell as his scrappy attorney, Watson Bryant, who blows his top whenever Jewell insists on showing off his knowledge of criminals and their motives to FBI agents — strengthening their belief that they have the right guy. Rockwell’s edginess is a great comic foil for Hauser’s mulishness — and vice versa — and Nina Arianda as Bryant’s Russian secretary adds a touch of giddiness that keeps the film from being bogged down.
Say this about Eastwood: He evidently feels no obligation to reconcile disparate points of view — a weakness in some of his movies, a source of true drama in others. In Richard Jewell, Confederate flags show up in FBI headquarters, and, depending on the viewer, they could be a reminder of either an unjust system of laws or a national government’s willingness to trample states’ and individual’s rights. Jewell’s arsenal of weapons (pistols to assault rifles) can be taken as a sign of his nuttiness or his loyalty to the Second Amendment, seen as aberrant only by liberal elites who also regard him as a “Bubba.”
I’m inclined, though, to think that Eastwood’s intended audience will respond enthusiastically to the jabs at the government and the elites, who are seen casually lumping the NRA in with “fringe” groups. It can’t be an accident that Richard Jewell shows the enemies of truth and justice to be the FBI and the press, both of which have been targeted by the current administration, its Republican lackeys, and the sorts of people who rail at empty chairs. It can’t be an accident that the true villain of this story — the man who planted bombs to kill his political enemies and whose type is now ascendant — is deemed irrelevant, a distraction. It can’t be an accident that a postscript notes Jewell’s death in his early 40s, with the implication that he never fully recovered from this trauma, but doesn’t mention Kathy Scruggs, who left her job, fell into a depression, and died of a drug overdose long before Jewell’s diabetes helped do him in. You could argue that she was as much a victim of the FBI’s disgraceful behavior as he was, but I wouldn’t — at least not in certain parts of this country. I think Eastwood’s audience is going to eat this movie up, and maybe even turn it into a rallying cry. The legacy of the bombing of Olympic Centennial Park might end up suiting the bomber just fine.