At some point during those two hours in the dark — maybe the attack on the FBI as a rogue outfit using trickery to frame innocent people, or the depiction of journalists as amoral enemies of the people, or the swelling agitprop of applause lines about common folks under attack “from our two most powerful forces — the United States government and the media” — I began to wonder if I’d made a wrong turn.
Was I really in a Philadelphia multiplex, or had I wound up at President Trump’s lie-larded Hershey rally taking place at exactly the same time?
No, this really was Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Richard Jewell, which takes the saga of the Atlanta security guard who was falsely accused in an ultra-high-profile deadly bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics and plugs that heartbreaking flub from a generation ago into the high-voltage zeitgeist of 2019 — burning a few folks in the process.
At a screening Tuesday night, I saw Richard Jewell so you won’t have to, when it opens nationally Friday. Rarely have I seen a film that was so “of the moment” — but in the worst possible way. In the time of a reality-TV president, Eastwood seamlessly blends facts with outright fiction to create a narrative that transcends truth. To get viewers riled up about “fake news," it fabricates a story. Yet, in the end, in making this movie intended to crush any remaining public faith in the news media, Eastwood has unintentionally reminded us of why democracy requires a functioning free press.
This movie of contradiction springs forth from a man of many contradictions.
Regardless of one’s politics, few can dispute that Eastwood emerged from a 1960s’ bowl of spaghetti westerns to become one of the greatest directors of his generation. His best movies such as The Unforgiven (1992) or Mystic River (2003) have reminded us that Hollywood can occasionally pull a taut morality play from its grab bag of comic-book explosions.
But this A-list filmmaker has often stumbled incoherently when he wades into politics — his somewhat nihilistic libertarianism giving rise to moments like his head-scratching skit at the 2012 Republican convention trying to depict Barack Obama as an empty chair on a stage.
In our recent nightmare, Eastwood has sounded more Trump-curious than like an enthusiastic supporter of the president, and it’s worth noting the film was green-lighted in 2014 when the notion of a President Trump would have been a crazy script no studio would touch. And there surely is a story to tell of what happened to poor Richard Jewell in the seminal days of America’s 24/7 news cycle.
A security guard with a slightly tarnished past and thwarted dreams of uniformed police work, oft ridiculed for his obesity, Jewell is working at an AT&T concert tent at Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics when he sees an unattended backpack that — as he feared — is filled with pipe bombs. His warning and a hasty evacuation saved lives — although two people died and more than 100 were injured. But the FBI’s immediate suspicion fell on Jewell as having possibly staged the event to make a cop-wannabe into a hero. As the film actually shows, it was not unreasonable for the feds to investigate this theory — although leaking that fact to the media was unconscionable.
There’s little suspense in Richard Jewell, both because most moviegoers know the outcome and also because viewers see the actual terrorist phoning in the bomb warning. And without it, Eastwood’s movie can’t decide if it’s a character study of Jewell — although, while skillfully played by Paul Walter Hauser, the security guard is mostly inscrutable — or a buddy comedy with Jewell’s libertarian lawyer (Sam Rockwell, in the film’s best performance).
It’s no wonder that the political themes tend to rise above the muddle.
Whatever you think of the film’s two heroes, Eastwood’s villains are way more cartoonish and two-dimensional than anything in the Marvel catalog. Except it’s like a comic book written by Rush Limbaugh, starting with the first tip to the FBI about Jewell, phoned in by a smarmy bow-tie wearing college president (Jewell’s former employer) who’s framed by a poster of words like “Education” and “Knowledge.”
The zeal of the FBI to quickly bring down their case on Jewell, using blatantly dirty tricks in an effort to get him to confess on camera and provide critical evidence, rings somewhat true, even if it coincidentally feels like a preview of our current Attorney General William Barr’s efforts to destroy the bureau for opening an investigation in 2016 of Trump.
But it’s the portrayal of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the real-life journalist who first reported that Jewell was an FBI suspect — the late Kathy Scruggs — where Richard Jewell morally and ethically blows up, with a force roughly equivalent to the bomb at the center of the film. The real-life Scruggs, as depicted in this factual profile, was a more-than-colorful-enough character who swore like a sailor (the film got that right) and could probably outdrink most of them (something not to be celebrated, since friends suspect drinking and drugs played a role in her death in 2001, at the young age of just 42.)
But that murky reality isn’t the point about “fake news” upon which Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray needed to make the story of Richard Jewell something more than it really was. (The male filmmakers also made an interesting choice to go after a real-life woman — who can’t sue them, what with being dead — even though the male FBI characters, led by Jon Hamm, who essentially plays Don Draper if he’d chosen a career in law enforcement over advertising, are fictional. Funny how that works.)
Olivia Wilde (daughter of real-life journalists, one of so many ironies) plays Scruggs as a truly loathsome yet cardboard 1960s TV Batman villain. She’s a femme fatale who does things I’ve never seen the real-life, fascinating women I’ve worked with during nearly 40 years in newspapering do (like insulting her women newsroom colleagues for writing boring stories) and says things I’ve never heard my intrepid colleagues say (“God, I sure hope the killer is interesting," just minutes after the carnage). It’s all good fodder for Eastwood’s audience — who may well be chanting “Lock her up!” before the final curtain is raised.
But far worse is the movie’s unmistakable insinuation that Scruggs gets the critical tip that Jewell is a suspect only after encountering Hamm’s G-man in a dark bar where she turns on the thigh-rubbing seduction, gets the info, and then asks if they should go to a motel room or her car as the scene fades out. The moment has already caused something of an uproar — Scruggs’ Atlanta coworkers insist she would have never traded sex for a story. No such charge was leveled in the deeply reported books and magazine articles that inspired the film. What’s more, such an allegation wasn’t made in years of litigation by Jewell against Scruggs, her coauthor, and the AJC.
Interestingly, the movie makes zero mention of Jewell’s lawsuits, for which he received substantial payments from CNN and NBC (neither admitted wrongdoing.) Scruggs and her paper fought the lawsuit — and won.
In 2011, long after both Scruggs and Jewell had died — the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the articles “were substantially true at the time they were published.” That fact would have mucked up Eastwood’s movie, as would have other facts like downplaying the role the AJC’s reporting played in proving that Jewell could not have been at the pay phone used by the bomber, speeding up his exoneration. That’s all bad, but not as bad as that a movie sure to be loved by the promoters of hatred toward “fake news” is built atop a big lie.
On Tuesday, the Atlantic Journal-Constitution hired an attorney who wrote to Warner Bros., Eastwood and Ray ripping the movie’s portrayal of Scruggs as “false and malicious" and demanded both a prominent disclaimer and an acknowledgment that parts of the film are sheer imagination. The studio responded with a defense of its artistic license to smear a dead woman journalist, calling the newspaper’s demand for truth “the ultimate irony.” The chutzpah of that has to remind one of a certain politician.
There’s a lot to critique about modern journalism and the way that some of my colleagues do their jobs. I know this because as a blogger-turned-columnist and Twitter loudmouth, I’m constantly on the case of CNN, NBC News, the New York Times and others for both systemic failures and ethical lapses. Media criticism is vital in the 21st century — but only because democracy needs a free press to do a better job. Richard Jewell will give plenty of oxygen to people who don’t want to save a free press, but destroy it.
It’s also ironic that Richard Jewell comes out in the very same week that the Washington Post — after a dogged three-year fight to pry free secret records from federal officials — published a remarkable piece that chronicled two decades of government lies about the $1 trillion war in Afghanistan. That’s a reality of what American journalism does — as well as countless remarkable local scoops like exposes of abusive cops and failed institutions in my hometown of Philadelphia — yet millions fewer will read these stories than will see the falsehoods of Richard Jewell.
Timing is everything, and so Richard Jewell is the movie that America really doesn’t need right now. I feel like I write this sentence in every column these days, but this is a very dangerous time for our country. Using vile language that echoes Joseph Stalin and other notorious dictators, President Trump is bashing the news media that criticizes him as “enemies of the people,” seeking to destroy all faith in journalism. The president of the United States wants to obliterate the very concept of objective reality, to create the kind of nihilism and despair that will be necessary to grant him a democracy-threatening second term. Whatever their artistic intentions at the outset, Eastwood, Ray and Warner Bros. just made an $100 million contribution to Trump’s 2020 campaign.