Even before that fake baby in AMERICAN SNIPER, people were talking like Clint Eastwood was some confused old man who doesn’t know how to direct a movie anymore. Gotta disagree. I know I’m far from the only one who really enjoyed and was surprised by THE MULE, and now that I’ve caught up with Clint’s latest director-only drama, RICHARD JEWELL, I’m here to tell you that’s a good one too. Really good, and to me it’s by far the most compelling of what now seems to be a Real American Heroes series with SNIPER, SULLY and THE 15:17 TO PARIS*.
Okay, yeah, so there’s a part where kids drinking beer in a dorm room have a poster on the wall that says “Beer 2 Night.” Have fun with that one. I didn’t notice the fake baby before so maybe there’s some in this one, I honestly don’t care. It’s a fascinating story, it made me laugh, it moved me, it has one of if not the best lead performance of last year. My friends, I have Jewellmania.
If you weren’t too young in the ‘90s you know Richard Jewell as history’s most famous temp security guard. While working the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta he found a suspicious bag under a bench that turned out to have a bomb in it. Thanks to his discovery they managed to back the crowd away before the bomb exploded, but a woman was still killed by the blast, a man died of a heart attack, and 111 were injured by shrapnel.
Jewell was briefly lauded as a hero, until the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that the FBI was investigating whether he planted the bomb himself so he could pretend to save everybody. The theory was completely wrong – abortion clinic and gay bar bomber Eric Rudolph confessed to the crime years later – but it instantly turned Jewell into one of those ‘90s figures like O.J. Simpson or Tonya Harding, who received round-the-clock sensationalistic news coverage. He was presumed guilty and sentenced to humiliation, with reporters shining a spotlight on his failed law enforcement career and the fact that he lived with his mom.
Of course that means Jay Leno filled his monologue with hacky jokes about Jewell being a fat hick loser. American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell, a 1997 Vanity Fair article credited as one of two sources for the movie, happens to quote Leno joking about Jewell’s “scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan.” And sure enough both of the people Leno was insulting have now been played by the same actor, Paul Walter Hauser. He pretty much stole I, TONYA with his very funny, surprisingly accurate portrayal of the wannabe “counter-espionage expert” who pays two “operatives” to injure Nancy Kerrigan’s leg. He’s also really funny in Cobra Kai Season 2 as an adult security guard who joins the teen karate school Cobra Kai and decides to start braiding his goatee and calling himself “Stingray.”
The movie was originally set up with Paul Greengrass directing Jonah Hill as Jewell and Leonardo Dicaprio as his lawyer. Eastwood had the way better idea of casting Hauser based on clips from I, TONYA and the show The Kingdom. He didn’t even make him audition. As a character, Richard Jewell is a weirdly perfect progression for Hauser. He still gets to be funny in a similar way, throwing around lots of laughable cop lingo to try to sound important, but of course he’s a much more sympathetic character than those other two, and his internalized anger and grief occasionally boil over in very moving ways. I won’t impugn any of last year’s best actor nominees as undeserving, but Hauser definitely belonged up there with them.
It starts in ’86, with Richard pushing a supply cart in an office where ornery, anti-establishment lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, MATCHSTICK MEN) warms to him enough to give him the nickname “Radar.” When Richard leaves the job to pursue a career in law enforcement, Watson makes him promise not to become an asshole.
Cut to Richard being an asshole as a college security guard in Athens, Georgia. Admonished by the bow-tie-wearing dean (Charles Green, “Orderly #3, DISORDERLIES) for, among other things, pulling people over on the highway, Richard explains, “I believe in law and order, sir” and refers to his contemporaneous notes to prove that he was once asked to prevent “mickey mousin’” on campus.
Next we see him in his infamous living situation with his mom, Bobi (Kathy Bates, DICK TRACY) in Atlanta; the movie correctly indicates that he was staying temporarily to look after her after a surgery and try to work the Olympics. The plan works out well at first because he gets his mom into a Kenny Rogers concert.
(HUGE INEXCUSABLE MOVIE ERROR: Ronnie Allen [“Bouncer” in THE EXPERT starring Jeff Speakman] is listed on the credits as “Kenny Rogers Impersonator,” even though he plays the real Kenny Rogers. GET IT STRAIGHT, END CREDITS!)
Richard likes to hang out with the cops doing security detail and talk himself up. They laugh at how big a deal he makes of everything, but seem to either like him or think he’s harmless. When he first finds the bag, though, they seem impatient with how by-the-book he is about everything, assuming that it’s nothing and pointless to go through all the formalities. Until it turns out that holy shit, there’s really a pipe bomb in there. Those guys in the sound tower who assumed he was full of shit when he came in yelling to leave owe him an apology.
But he doesn’t turn into a Danny McBride character about it. He’s humble to a fault and quick to give the credit to everyone else on the scene. He seems a little embarrassed and unprepared, but also flattered, to get interviewed on TV. Somebody from pavilion sponsor AT&T set up the interview – in the article it says they made sure he wore his polo shirt with their logo on it.
It’s that dean who fired Richard from the college (very justifiably, it should be noted) who fucked everything up by calling the FBI and telling them he was a nut. And though Clint and screenwriter Billy Ray (COLOR OF NIGHT, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, GEMINI MAN) are clearly on Richard’s side, they don’t pretend it’s completely ridiculous to be suspicious of him. In fact, it’s kind of funny how much of it is a result of him being a know-it-all. A law enforcement buddy comes over for dinner wearing a wire, and when Richard speculates about how the bomb was built, and explains that it would’ve shot the shrapnel in a much deadlier way if some drunk kids hadn’t tipped the bag over, it really does sound like he knows too much about it.
Shortly before he’s in trouble, when he thinks he might get a book deal, Richard calls up his old friend Watson for some lawyer help. That’s how a lawyer nobody ever heard of with a staff of one ends up on the biggest case in the country. Jon Hamm (SPACE COWBOYS) plays the FBI Agent who both leads the investigation and leaks it to the media. His character Tom Shaw is a composite, but it really is true that agents tricked Jewell into coming in to be interviewed for what they claimed was an FBI training film!
Shaw is backed by agents Hughes (Dylan Kussman, JACK REACHER) and Bennet (Ian Gomez, who was on a show called “Felicity”’ where apparently his character Javier was the main character’s boss at Dean & Deluca and was very effeminate and had an accent but looked the same as this macho agent), and Hamm and Rockwell get to really bounce their disdain off of each other.
But the real chemistry is between Richard and Watson. It’s kind of a buddy movie. They’re so different, but they really like each other. Watson is so exasperated as he finds out new incriminating things about Richard or fails to stop him from being nice to the agents who are harassing him 24-7. After seeing something on TV he has to ask if he was really arrested for impersonating an officer.
“Once. It was complicated.”
That’s nothing compared to when he finds out that Richard saved a splinter of the exploded bench in a scrapbook. Doesn’t look great. He’s not some hippie – the real guy calls himself a libertarian – but he’s clearly befuddled by Richard’s gun collection. He asks if he’s preparing for a zombie invasion, which kind of seems anachronistic, but I like to think it means he has good taste in movies and made references to DAWN OF THE DEAD before it took over the culture.
The movie definitely simplifies many things about the case (Watson was not his only lawyer, for example), but it passes the “Movie Still Seemed Good After I Read the Original Article” test, and stays closer to the facts than some other good ones like THE MULE and HUSTLERS. (Movies that have failed: ARGO, PAIN & GAIN, WAR DOGS I’m guessing from the trailer.) It takes some lines of dialogue straight out of the article and includes numerous colorful details, including that Richard kept a cooler of water bottles and Coke by his station to pass out to cops and pregnant women, and that one of his favorite bands, “Jack Mack and the Heart Attack,” were performing during the bombing. (I didn’t catch this at all, but apparently the performance footage is from the real show.)
One detail from the article that would’ve been funny to include in the movie: Watson didn’t immediately answer Richard’s call in part because he was annoyed that Richard had never paid him $100 he owed him for a radar detector.
I knew long before seeing the movie about the controversy involving Olivia Wilde (A VIGILANTE)’s character Kathy Scruggs. They use the real name of the journalist who broke the story that the FBI was investigating him, but add the fictional event of her convincing him to leak the name of the suspect by offering him sex. Worse, the real woman can’t defend herself, because she’s deceased. And even worse than that, there’s a scene where she says “YES!” when “The Macarena” starts playing. And unless they can back that up I don’t think that’s fair.
For what it’s worth, Vanity Fair also had an interesting article about Scruggs and the controversy. An editor that worked with her for years felt the movie portrayed her well except that the sex insinuation was “just bullshit.”
It’s an unfortunate stain on an otherwise really good movie. But the controversy is also a little misleading. Some of the things that make it a little different than it sounds:
1. Wilde is really good as a funny asshole who comes in with all sleaze guns blazing and two middle fingers raised. There’s a part where Watson gets into his car and she sits up out of the back seat, scaring the shit out of him, and starts asking him questions! Her vibe isn’t ‘despicable,’ it’s ‘humorously crass and audacious.’ So separate of any possible defamation she’s a fun character.
2. She has a previously established flirtatious relationship with Agent Shaw and they both joke “are we really doing this?” when they leave the bar together after he’s already given her the information. It’s a journalist sleeping with her source – a sexist cliche – but not exactly the reported quid pro quo.
3. She ultimately (SPOILER) realizes that Jewell really is innocent, feels enormous remorse, and attempts to convince Shaw to back down. And he’s the asshole who doesn’t change his mind.
4. The emphasis of the movie is much more on the FBI fucking up than the media.
That’s the thing with Clint. He has those reactionary libertarian octogenarian politics that he mouths off about and sounds like an asshole, and then his movies are always more thoughtful than that. People jumped to the conclusion that he was using this very old case of journalistic malpractice for the popular right wing hobby of painting the entire news media as bad guys. That’s kind of a side issue – Richard’s mom loves Tom Brokaw and says he “sure is handsome,” so it’s devastating to hear him talk about her son as if he’s guilty. But the central theme is Richard’s very long, slow journey to realizing that the cops he has worshiped his whole life can be wrong, can be incompetent, can be assholes, can take a totally innocent guy – in fact, a hero who saved a whole bunch of lives – and destroy him.
In a way it’s similar to the arc of SULLY, the pilot who saves a bunch of lives and for some reason they accuse him of doing it wrong but then they say oh yeah, whoops, my bad, yep, you obviously did it right. But everybody still remembers him as Sully the hero pilot. For Richard it was like 2 days of hero and 3 months of possible suspect, so that’s the part we remember him for.
Throughout the movie Richard tries to offer the agents help and can’t get mad at them like Watson does because “Uh, I was raised to respect authority, sir.” He keeps telling them “I’m law enforcement too” and that they can talk to him “cop to cop” even though he knows they’re laughing at him. We only see Bobi’s Disney tapes in the house, but I picture Richard owning all the DIRTY HARRY movies on VHS. He hero worships cops, and a federal one – you know, a cop from that bureau founded by J. EDGAR – is even cooler. So when he gets to the point of telling them that he doesn’t respect them as much anymore, it’s like Dirty Harry throwing his badge in the water at the end.
RICHARD JEWELL rules, other movies drool.
*I also watched 15:17 when it came out on video, and for some reason never finished my review of it. It’s the one where the young men who pinned down a terrorist who tried to shoot a bunch of people on a train play themselves. I remember thinking that the casting choice was both the only very interesting thing about the movie and a major roadblock to it ever being very effective. There were some flashbacks to their school days that seemed laughable to me. I think one of them had a poster for one of Clint’s westerns, which is kind of an interesting self-reference since it could also be a commentary on how those parts of our pop culture inspire people. The re-enactment of what they did was much more intense than I knew to expect and it is very weird that they had to relive it on camera like that. And didn’t seem bothered by it. And I kind of liked the parts that were just like a travelogue of them visiting Paris.
In summary, 15:17 is Eastwood’s worst movie of recent years, maybe worst ever, but at least interestingly weird and distinctly late-Eastwood.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.