Probably not a good time to watch ‘Richard Jewell’, but glad we did

Still shot from film 'Richard Jewell'
Still shot from film ‘Richard Jewell’. Paul Walter Hauser gave an amazing performance of the title character.

We were in search of a film to watch in these trying times, and we settled on Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. The Coronavirus epidemic is upending my innate distrust of the federal government, because right now, we pretty much have to trust different tiers of government, at least on some level.  So this probably wasn’t a good time to watch a film like this.

Above all, Eastwood’s movie illustrates the gargantuan power of the federal government with special emphasis on agencies like the FBI. The FBI’s treatment of a man who was a legit hero should never be forgotten. I lived through the historic event, the bombing of the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. I remember media coverage of the event and the quick rush to judgment of a man whose admiration for law enforcement backfired on him in an epic way. Jewell, simply put, trusted authorities far more than he should have.

The film tells Jewell’s story in brutally honest terms. The informal collusion between an FBI agent—he was a composite character—and a newspaper reporter who ultimately died from a drug overdose five years after the bombing story played out should trouble every American. When federal authorities and media come knocking, it appears you have few rights if you are an American citizen. If you don’t believe me, just read up on the scandalous persecution of Gibson Guitars.

You might think a story so obsessively covered would be boring. It isn’t. Eastwood is a master filmmaker. As a viewer, I found myself laughing with and at Jewell, and falling in love with his mom Bobi played by Kathy Bates and his attorney Watson Bryant played by Sam Rockwell. Nina Arianda was awesome as Nadya.

The film did draw some criticism, for pointing the finger at the FBI agent Tom Shaw played by the easy-on-the-eyes Jon Hamm and newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs superbly portrayed by Olivia Wilde. People who knew Wilde claimed she never would have slept with someone just to get information for a big story.

I have no idea whether the film depicted Scruggs accurately or not and she isn’t here to deny or confirm. I will say it is my personal opinion that most ‘reporters’ have zero ethics and will do anything to get that big story. I will also say that’s nothing new—it’s in the DNA of media workers.

Several lawsuits were brought against media. Some succeeded in settlements while the primary culprit, The Atlanta Journal Constitution for whom Ms. Scruggs broke the story targeting Jewell got off without paying a dime.

Stories like that of Richard Jewell are a reminder that absolute power corrupts. At one point in the story Jewell’s attorney Bryant says, “His accusers are two of the most powerful forces in the world—the United States government and the media.” Truer words were never spoken.

The film discloses information we didn’t know when the bombing happened.

Then-president Bill Clinton’s attorney general Janet Reno did eventually apologize about the persecution of Jewell, telling she public she regretted the FBI leak that led to targeting Jewell. At that point in the presidency of Clinton, the public had become accustomed to the heavy-handedness of his agencies with incidents like the senseless deaths in Waco, Texas, a tragedy initiated by the government that, at the time, was defended by many media outlets.

By the time the government got the real bomber, Richard Jewell’s life had been ruined. He died not long after the story upended his life, and I believe he died young not because of his underlying health conditions but because of what media and the FBI put his mother and him through.

Right now in the US, we pretty much have to trust our mayors, governors, and president as we navigate our way through the Coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China. Maybe it isn’t a good time to watch a film like Richard Jewell. I’m not sure about that. I am sure that his story needed to be told, that we need to take heed, and that Clint Eastwood is, in my opinion, the most brilliant filmmaker of my time.

Regarding casting, Paul Walter Hauser made the role of Jewell his own. He deserved a major award for his performance in that film.

(Kay B. Day/March 20, 2020)

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