Although he’s an awards darling, from Unforgiven to Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood has shunned the nominations circuit for recent efforts like The Mule or 15.17 to Paris; Richard Jewell turns up for UK release a good six weeks since an initial US release won mixed reviews, slender takings at the box office, and a successful campaign for an Oscar nomination for Kathy Bates. It also provoked considerable controversy over the way Eastwood represented the true story involved here, and although that brouhaha didn’t sell tickets, it’s a film with details worth unpicking.
Eastwood seems to see Richard Jewell’s story has something of a parable for our times; a humble security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) discovers and alerts authorities to a rucksack loaded with pipe bombs during a Jack Mack concert at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. His actions save lives, and his lauded as a hero, until government officials start looking into his eccentric behaviour, and wondering if Jewell might have planted the bomb to enhance his own reputation. A key scene has reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) using sex to wheedle Jewell’s name out of federal agent Shaw (Jon Hamm).
Despite being a product of the star system, Eastwood wisely doesn’t cast an established star in his main role, and gets an unaffected, sincere performance from Hauser, a notable heavy in films like I Tonya. An actors’ director, Eastwood also does well with Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s anti-authority lawyer Watson Bryant; a poster on his wall reads ‘I’m more afraid of government than I am of terrorists’ and the whole film narrows down on the dangers of the media and the law colluding to be judge, jury and executioner (Jewell faced the death penalty if convicted). And best of all, Bates has a subtle turn with a big pay-off as Jewell’s mother, who advised the film-makers and provides another sympathetic route into the story.
It’s impressive that a film-maker like Eastwood would choose to tell such an egalitarian story, with real sympathy for the downtrodden. But his sympathy doesn’t seem to extend to Scruggs, who unlike the fed she gets the info from, is not a fictional character. A film about the truth has to deal in hard facts, and the fictionalisation of such a key element lets the sensitivity out of the argument. Many films are weakened by playing fast and loose with the truth; Richard Jewell has one such moment, yet offers an otherwise absorbing, engaging look at a world gone mad in a rush to judgement. It feels like Eastwood wants to address the worst excesses of MeToo, but the casual treatment of Scruggs ruins the balance of his argument.
The idea of trials without evidence, witnesses or justice is a topical one in January 2020, and double-standards cast a long shadow. ‘When the government arrest you, that’s when we know you’re innocent’ says Bryant’s caustic Russian wife Nadya, and Eastwood’s complaint about the scarcity of justice has urgent merit. Whether your sympathies line up with Republicans or Democrats, America would do well to avoid setting a template for a new era of Russian ‘show-trials’ with predetermined outcomes.