Director Clint Eastwood tells his own story of an American hero with “Richard Jewell,” a shallow portrait of a security guard who was wrongly accused of bombing Atlanta’s Centennial Park in 1996. Jewell reported the suspicious device before it detonated and is credited with saving countless lives due to his swift actions to usher people to safety. But a few days after the bombing, he becomes the FBI’s number one suspect and is vilified by both the press and the court of public opinion.
The timeline and events are sometimes a little fuzzy, as Eastwood carefully chooses what to present and how to present it in a way that fits his personal agenda. FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) is a handsome G-man who drops swagger but lacks morality and engages in acts of entrapment to frame Jewell as the guilty party. It’s almost impossible to believe any of this could’ve actually happened, and it feels exaggerated for dramatic effect. The same can be said for Jewell’s attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a man out of his element with a high-profile criminal law case and a too-trusting client. Everybody here looks like a complete idiot, and only Richard and his mama Bobi (Kathy Bates, in a fantastic supporting performance) earn the audience’s sympathy.
And then there’s the controversy with Olivia Wilde‘s character, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs. Let me clear the air from the get-go. While I don’t find this movie to be “rotten,” I do take personal offense to the way the female journalist is portrayed. Scruggs is treated in an incredibly sexist way, as a flaky woman who prances around in tight skirts (it is heavily implied that she gets ahead in her career by offering sexual favors to men in positions of power), all in order to land the scoop and get ahead in her career. What a tasteless, shameful narrative. It’s nauseating misogyny at its very worst.
Eastwood is all-in with his support of the accused, and the film sometimes feels like an old man’s rant against liberal ideals, the press, and the FBI. The movie slams the power of the media to ruin lives, and the importance for reporters to get the facts correct instead of jumping to conclusions or running with an unsubstantiated rumor. Topics like this will make the film even more polarizing in today’s climate, as it promotes the ignorant narrative of the “fake news” era and leans towards the slant of conservative propaganda. That aside, this is a decently crafted and entertaining movie about a man society chewed up, spit out, and promptly forgot.