89-year-old Clint Eastwood has become more political in the last 15 years or so, and a lot of his recent films have reflected his conservative leanings. This doesn't mean he isn't still a prodigiously skilled director, but his talent is like the Incredible Hulk... to be effective, it has to be aimed in the right direction before it's unleashed.
At worst (at least in terms of directorial POV), Eastwood's films often feel old-fashioned, like a John Wayne movie, not strident or overtly offensive to a liberal-minded perspective.
In his recent men-in-crisis movies, Eastwood has toyed with biopic conventions; the results have ranged from blatant jingoism, as in 'American Sniper', to terrific, as in 'Sully', to oddball, as in the docudrama mumblecore experiment 'The 15:17 to Paris'. But with 'Richard Jewell', he largely plays it straight.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, 'BlacKkKlansman') is a security guard who lives with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates, 'On The Basis of Sex'). He discovers a backpack filled with pipe bombs at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, making him a hero whose swift actions save countless lives. But within days, the law enforcement wannabe becomes the FBI's number one suspect, since he fits the popular stereotype of a terrorist bomber. Vilified by press and public alike, his life is ripped apart. Reaching out to a low-rent, Snickers bar-loving real-estate lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, 'Jojo Rabbit'), Jewell professes his innocence. Bryant must fight the combined powers of the FBI, GBI and APD to clear his client's name, while keeping the authority-worshipping Richard from trusting the very people trying to destroy him.
It's a timely story in an era that's becoming defined by the words "fake" and "news." It's horrible that Donald Trump is painting the news media as the enemy of the people, but he didn't pull that concept from nowhere. People were already distrustful of journalists, and this is one of the big reasons why. The media were actually worse back then because they were unopposed; there was no culturally pervasive internet to call irresponsible reporting out. If that happened today, they might try to do the same kind of railroading, but their narrative wouldn't go unchallenged.
It didn't help matters at the time that Jewell fit a certain profile. He'd once been arrested for impersonating a police officer and had been fired from his last job as a college security guard for pulling over drivers off-campus; his earlier stint as a sheriff's deputy had ended under similarly embarrassing circumstances.
Much of this material comes by way of 'American Nightmare', a 1997 profile of Jewell written by Marie Brenner for Vanity Fair. The screenplay, written by Billy Ray (whose ripped-from-the-headlines story credits includes 'Breach', 'Captain Phillips' and 'Shattered Glass'), portrays Jewell as an underdog who wants to be one of the good guys. He can't stop trying to win the respect of the cops and the federal investigators, even after he is tricked into an interrogation at an FBI field office by agents who tell him that he is starring in a training video.
The biggest problem with the film is the villain, in the form of Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde, 'A Vigilante'), the Journal-Constitution crime reporter who co-wrote the front-page story that precipitated Jewell's public excoriation.
It's a timely story in an era that's becoming defined by the words "fake" and "news."
Scruggs isn't depicted as a realistic journalist - i.e. a visibly tired, multitasking woman, working relentlessly because she knows the stories she's reporting are the stories that need telling. No, Scruggs is shown as a sex-for-scoops journalist, literally in bed with the FBI, having been tipped off about the bureau's suspicions about Jewell from Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm, 'The Report'). Wilde plays her like Jenna Maroney from '30 Rock', whose answer for everything is to use her sexuality. The trope of the unethical female reporter has persisted for several decades, throughout fiction, film, and television - and there's something uniquely damaging about portraying women journalists as being willing to trade sex for stories. So, in order to explore its core themes - the overreaching of the press and the government - Billy Ray's screenplay does a huge disservice to a real-life woman. Shaw, meanwhile, is a fictional composite character.
On the plus side, Eastwood's laidback, no-frills directing style is augmented by the strongest cast to populate one of his movies in years, particularly Paul Walter Hauser as Richard and Kathy Bates as his mother (she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress).
The media should be better and failed to be so in the case of Jewell. Furthermore, it punished the man for being nothing more than an oddball outsider who did not conform to societal standards. His story is ridiculously tragic and it was a genuine failing on behalf of a lot of people who wanted him to be the bomber. That's how media narratives work, and why we're saddled with so many conspiracy theories now. The media needs to own up to that in a way I don't think it really has (and I doubt the FBI ever will).
Despite some stumbles with the script and one disappointing piece of characterisation, 'Richard Jewell' is a well-acted and admirably low-key piece from Eastwood that raises a lot of questions. At the risk of sounding ageist, most 89-year-olds are lucky to have one good bowel movement left in them, let alone films this interesting.