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NPR Arts & Life

Sneer Campaign: 'Richard Jewell'

Paul Walter Hauser (center) stars as <em>Richard Jewel</em>l, the hero and FBI suspect of the 1996 Olympic bombing.

There's no post-credits scene at the end of director Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell,a good-acting, bad-faith dramatization of the plight of a wrongfully accused security guard at the 1996 Olympic Games.

But if you stay put through all of them, patiently sheltering in place until minute 132, you'll strain your eyes to read this advisory: "The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization." Jewell, a 33-year-old who'd been dismissed from jobs as a campus police officer and sheriff's deputy, discovered a bomb in Atlanta's Centennial Park. He was helping to evacuate the area when the device exploded, only to find himself publicly identified as the prime suspect. (Jewell was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, after being put through the wringer of public scrutiny.)

Anyway, that lawerly little paragraph follows, by several minutes, two larger title cards explaining that Billy Ray's screenplay was based on two nonfiction pieces, a 1997 Vanity Fairstory by Marie Brenner and The Suspect,a book by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen that was just published last month. But nowhere in either will you find any evidence that Kathy Scruggs and Ron Martz's Page One Atlanta Journal Constitutionstory — which accurately reported that the FBI was considered Jewell a suspect — only happened because Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) offered the lead FBI investigator (Jon Hamm) a sexual favor in exchange for a tip. In the movie's imagined scenario, they're not lovers sharing careless pillow talk; it's explicitly an exchange. "Should we get a room or just go to my car?" Wilde asks.

I'm using the actor's name here instead of that the character she's playing to highlight the movie's fundamental unfairness: Scruggs was a real person who died of a prescription drug overdose in 2001, while Hamm's G-man is a made-up character by the made-up name of Tom Shaw. (The real FBI agent believed to have tipped off Scruggs, Donald Johnson, has also died at a relatively young age in the intervening years, as has Jewell himself.) Had Ray opted to give his reckless reporter — the one he introduces to us an amoral ladder-climber who announces to her boss "I'm getting my [breasts] done" — an imaginary name too, his artistic license would remain current and valid. But he didn't, and that act of malice undermines everything of value in Richard Jewell.This film about the smearing of an innocent man is itself a hit piece. And unlike that unfortunate AJC story, it's an utterly intentional one.

While the editors of the AJC were guilty of poor judgment in their handling of a fast-breaking news story, the 89-year-old director of Richard Jewell has had 23 years (during which he has directed 22 feature films) to get it right. Why might he have chosen, at this perilous moment in our history, to make a movie that depicts not just the press but also the FBI as fundamentally corrupt and uninterested in the truth? The agents in the film trade on Jewell's desperation to be one of their peers ("I'm law enforcement, too" he tells them repeatedly, never once sounding like he believes it) to try to trick him into confessing while dismissing physical evidence that indicates he couldn't have done it — at least not without an accomplice, which torpedoes the lone-bomber psychological profile they insist fits Jewell to a T. In the movie's most adroit scene, he proves incapable of abstaining from small talk with the army of FBI evidence technicians searching the apartment he and his mother share, despite his lawyer's instructions to keep his mouth shut.

Technically, Eastwood tells the story with his usual efficiency: unfussy camerawork, mild, infrequent scoring. Wilde and Hamm both seem deeply bored, but the movie's three key performances — Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell, Sam Rockwell as his attorney Watson Bryant, and Kathy Bates as Bobbi Jewell, the wrongfully accused man's mother — are strong. These are good actors, but then again they're playing the only characters Ray's screenplay allows to exhibit more than one personality trait.

Hauser is the biggest revelation given his relative lack of familiarity; he was memorable as a deluded doofus with tough-guy aspirations in I, Tonya.That's a much wilder, more brazenly imaginative account of a splashy mid-90s news story than Richard Jewell is. Ironically, it's a more honest one, too.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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