By Kirsten Coachman
Hitting theaters this weekend is “Richard Jewell,” the newest offering from Oscar-winning director/producer Clint Eastwood (“The Mule”). Starring Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”), Oscar winners Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and Kathy Bates (“Misery”), Jon Hamm (“The Report”), and Olivia Wilde (director of this year’s “Booksmart”), the film is based on true events surrounding the 1996 bombing at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner (“American Nightmare—The Ballad of Richard Jewell”), which was published in the magazine’s February 1997 issue.
The film depicts Richard Jewell (Hauser) as a well-meaning, albeit naive, guy who has the greatest respect for authority, from his mother Bobi Jewell (Bates), whom he resides with, to all matters of law enforcement. Part of that respect is rooted in his ongoing desire to be a part of the law enforcement community. On the evening of July 27, 1996, he was working security at Centennial Park during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. After clearing away some drunken members of the crowd from outside the sound and light tower, Richard comes across a suspicious looking backpack under a bench. He alerts the authorities on the scene of what he’s found, and upon confirmation that the backpack contains three large pipe bombs, Richard assists in evacuating the tower as well as directing people away from the area, ultimately saving the lives of many who were in the park when the bombs went off. (One person was killed during the blast and over 100 people were injured.)
Hours later, Richard is praised for his heroism, even offered a potential book deal, which prompts him to reach out to Watson Bryant (Rockwell), a lawyer whom he met during his time as a supply room clerk prior to pursuing his law enforcement goals. The hoopla quickly turns into outrage three days later when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution runs a front-page story written by intrepid police reporter Kathy Scruggs (Wilde) and Ron Martz (David Shae) claiming that the FBI is looking at Richard as the bomber and additionally states that he “fits the profile of the lone bomber,” setting off a media firestorm and public scrutiny that would forever tarnish his name.
It’s evident that Eastwood is using his cinematic platform to right what both the media and the FBI got wrong in their rush to judgment some 20-plus years ago to let filmgoers know that the late Richard Jewell, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 44, is indeed an American hero. And while yes, Scruggs’ reporting was at the center of this ordeal, her character is reduced to no more than a tired trope.
In the film, Scruggs is shown cozying up to FBI agent Tom Shaw (Hamm, playing a fictionalized character) at a bar as she inquires about the identity of the bomber. After uttering one of the most aggressive lines of the film, “If you couldn’t f— it out of them, what makes you think you can f— it out of me,” Shaw discloses that the bureau is focusing on Richard. Scruggs then asks him if they should get a hotel or go to her car before leaving the bar together.
It’s disappointing that Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) decided to go this route, as even Wilde admitted via a lengthy Twitter thread on Dec. 12 that none of her research on the late reporter, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 42, pointed to the film’s suggestion that Scruggs exchanged sexual favors for news tips. Plus, in a film that’s all about setting the record straight, this choice seemingly derails its own goal.
The portrayal of Scruggs ultimately clouds the film, but it would be remiss not to mention the strength of performances from the trio of Hauser, Rockwell, and Bates. Each of these actors contributes to the overall emotional depth of the film, yet, it’s Hauser’s impassioned monologue that steals the show during Richard’s final sit down with the FBI. The moment conveys the pain, humiliation, and frustration both he and Bobi experienced throughout the investigation that lasted 88 days before the bureau dropped its case. Even in a flawed film, the actor’s performance leaves an indelible mark.
“Richard Jewell” is now playing in theaters.