Clint Eastwood has exhausted audiences recently with his True American Hero collection. Beginning with Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper, in which Eastwood fictionalized the life of Chris Kyle, who seems much more redeemable on screen than he does in his autobiography. Next, Eastwood released the Tom Hanks vehicle Sully, where Eastwood invented a whole second half of the story in which the hero faced up against a fictitious board of supervisors that seemed intent on ruining him for some reason. Then came the dreadful The 15:17 to Paris, in which Eastwood enlisted the three real-life heroes that thwarted a train bombing, and produced perhaps the worst film of his career. However, the biggest takeaway from Richard Jewell is that maybe there’s a time even a world-class filmmaker should just hang up his hat already.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a one-time cop, now a security guard who lives with his mother (Kathy Bates). He takes a security gig at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. One fateful night, he notices a suspicious bag that turns out to be a bomb and saves hundreds of lives in the process. Initially hailed as a hero, the narrative begins to change when the media and the FBI decide to pin the blame on Jewell and convince the American public that he was the lone bomber.
Richard Jewell is an infuriating viewing experience. It is perhaps Eastwood’s most dangerous film to date. Released when an election year is looming, we have Eastwood’s most blatant piece of conservative propaganda yet. This is really saying something after The Mule, which is essentially an advertisement for the border wall. The truly devastating part of this is that Richard Jewell did not have to be like this at all. This is a significant story that deserves to be told, but it’s so drenched in this Clint Eastwood ‘everyone’s out to get you’ poison that it makes everything very difficult to take seriously.
I saw Richard Jewell on a Tuesday afternoon in a crowded theater of senior citizens, and these are clearly people who are on the same page as Eastwood. There’s a line at one point that is something like ‘when the media tells you someone is guilty, that’s how you know they are innocent.’ One old man behind me yelled out “amen”! The same man booed after the trailer played for Bombshell, depicting the fall of Roger Ailes. I point this out because Clint Eastwood is becoming the Dinesh D’Souza of the ‘legitimate’ film world. His films lean so far right at this point that unless you’re part of the choir he’s preaching to, you’ll miss his message entirely.
Eastwood somehow assembled a remarkable cast here, probably comprised of people who want to work with the 89-year-old filmmaker while they still can. Hauser, previously seen in I, Tonya delivers a fine, if a bit too showy, performance. The claims of Oscar buzz around his name are greatly exaggerated. It’s hard to root for Jewell. He seems like a friendly idiot who can’t tell when people are taking advantage of him, and even when he decides to take control near the end, those scenes don’t have the impact they should. Eastwood also uses Jewell as a way to talk about gun ownership in America, because of course he does.
There has been considerable controversy surrounding the treatment of Olivia Wilde’s character, reporter Kathy Scruggs. The problematic nature of Richard Jewell does not begin nor end there, however. Yes, everything you’ve heard is right, and nothing is being exaggerated in the press. Kathy is portrayed as an evil female reporter who trades sex for information. It isn’t subtle about this at all. Wilde, fresh off directing one of the year’s best films, is giving the performance of a cartoon villain who makes all women and people who work in the media look bad. Wilde has defended the film and later said that the script was simply out of her control. For a director whose female characters are always either saints, secretaries, or whores, this should not come as a surprise.
Kathy Bates, who can do better work than this in her sleep, is also receiving Oscar buzz. I love Kathy Bates, and always want to see her get more exciting work. However, this is not what’s happening here. She has a big speech near the end (which probably never happened) that is written in such a frustratingly convoluted way. Bates almost gets you to connect with this awful film for a minute, but the writing betrays her. Jon Hamm, as a villainous FBI agent, has little to nothing exciting to do here. Sam Rockwell, as Jewell’s only friend, is fine, but Rockwell has done far better work, even in films this year.
In the end, there is no doubt in my mind Eastwood released Richard Jewell in 2019, so this film could have some kind of effect on the 2020 election. His political themes are so crude and blatant, that unless you are on his side, you will find nothing in this story to relate to or sympathize with. We’ve got some genuinely great actors caught up in this, and why anyone agreed to this film is beyond me. The direction is bland and unfussy, and the script is wildly inconsistent. Richard Jewell is an infuriating and deeply destructive mess that trivializes a significant story.