Since I’m sick with the flu and the splitting headaches make reading an impossibility, I’ve been binge-watching DVDs and digital movies while I rest my sick little body. And last night I decided to rent Clint Eastwood’s film “Richard Jewell.”
For those who don’t know, “Richard Jewell” is about the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta – specifically the heroic security guard who was first celebrated by the media for discovering the bomb and saving lives only to then become the target of a media witch hunt when the FBI began investigating him as the prime suspect.
What happened to Richard Jewell is tragic. When the FBI first began looking into him, one of the agents did what FBI agents apparently do a lot — he leaked to a reporter that Jewell was their suspect. The reporter then did what reporters do a lot – she published the leak and set loose a media swarm on an innocent man.
Given our present climate, “Richard Jewell” made me seethe with fury over how easy it is for the media to destroy someone’s life.
One scene in particular got me furious. In it, the reporter enters the newsroom after the story makes the front page and all the other reporters start cheering.
Yay! You’ve made this guy a target! Whoopie!!!
Okay, they didn’t say that. But that was how that scene came across.
I found myself thinking, “Damn, it’s a good thing social media didn’t exist in 1996.” What happened to Richard Jewell was bad enough without every lunatic on Twitter joining the pig-pile and making it worse.
Jewell was an overeager guy who just wanted to be in law enforcement. The FBI profiled the suspect as a “hero bomber” — someone who sets a bomb in order to rush in and play the hero. Jewell’s desire to be a cop coupled with the media attention he received for his heroic actions fit the profile which is why the FBI suspected him.
But rather than simply bring him in for questioning, the agents try to entrap Jewell through a BS rouse. Jewell’s innocent willingness to help makes the rouse all the more easy to pull off. Meanwhile the story is already out that Jewell is their prime suspect. So as Jewell follows the feebs to their office, the media ambush him. But the poor guy has no idea that he’s walking into a trap.
Under the guise of making a “training video,” the agents get Jewell on camera answering their questions. They even try to get Jewell to play act waiving his Miranda rights as part of their video.
Finally it begins to dawn on Jewell that something isn’t right. He refuses to waive his rights even for play-acting, and wisely asks to call a lawyer.
But at this point, the damage is done. The media is camped out in front of his mother’s apartment. The FBI turns up to execute a search warrant. And the press who just days before was calling Jewell a hero begins treating him like a terrorist.
Lucky for Jewell, the lawyer he calls takes control of his naïve client and helps him go on the offensive.
Why anyone would talk to law enforcement without getting a lawyer is a mystery to me. But Jewell was so naïve he actually believed they wanted his assistance.
I wouldn’t call “Richard Jewell” the most compelling movie I’ve seen. It has its moments for sure. And, like I said, in our current climate, it’s hard not to be drawn in given the subject matter.
I wouldn’t have paid fifteen bucks to see it in the theater, but it’s definitely worth renting.
Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Jewell, does an excellent job as the somewhat gullible, eager young man who gets caught up in the media whirlwind. You can understand why the FBI suspected him. And you can also understand why Jewell didn’t catch on sooner that he was a suspect.
Kathy Bates is very good as Jewell’s mama, Bobi. Then again, Kathy Bates is always good. She delivers a particularly powerful performance in one scene later in the film. Jewell’s attorney arranges a press conference where Bobi recounts the ordeal brought on by the public shaming of her son and begs the press to stop. And you really feel for the woman.
Neither Jewell nor his mother are at all prepared for the media firestorm that comes their way. Who would be, really? And both Hauser and Bates play that beautifully.
“Mad Men” star Jon Hamm plays the lead FBI agent Tom Shaw. It is he who leaks Jewell’s name to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) in exchange for sex. Hamm isn’t exactly a versatile actor. Truth is, he played Shaw pretty much exactly as he played Don Draper in “Mad Men.” But that works in this case because Shaw, like Draper, is an asshole.
Sam Rockwell is excellent as Jewell’s attorney Watson Bryant. Unlike Jewell and his mother, Bryant knows just how awful both the press and the FBI can be. And his suspicion and cynicism is a much-needed balance to Jewell’s naïve eagerness.
What makes “Richard Jewell” compelling is watching a man’s life get destroyed by the vultures in the American news media. There is no regard, no concern for due process, no consideration that someone is innocent until proven guilty. All that matters to them is being first on the story. Jewell was convicted in the press despite the fact that he was never charged with any crime.
But that’s hardly a surprise given that the news media just a year or so ago set off a whirlwind of slander against teenage boy for the crime of smirking.
“Richard Jewell” doesn’t deal with the aftermath of his ordeal. Namely that Jewell sued, not only the Journal-Constitution, but also CNN, the New York Post, NBC News, as well as Piedmont College – his former employer — whose president was the one who first called the FBI and suggested Jewell might be the bomber.
Since we’re all practicing “social distancing” and have some time on our hands, you might want to consider renting “Richard Jewell.” It’s worth seeing.
Then again, since it may make you seethe with anger, maybe watching it at a time when you’re cooped up with the kids isn’t the best idea.
But I’ll leave that up to you.
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