There was a moment at the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Richard Jewell” where, if a viewer didn’t know what they were watching, those of a certain age might think they had stumbled upon a very well done after school special from the 80s (remember those?); or an incredibly-cast Lifetime movie of the week (just look it up, kids).
And while there’s no way to tell if that was Eastwood’s intent — the film is set during the heyday of both those mediums, after all — the decision to shoot a major Hollywood production telling Richard Jewell’s story in a format hearkening back to the most average in film storytelling fits perfectly with the subject matter: the most average guy one can imagine becomes embroiled in a blockbuster smear by, as the film notes, two of the most powerful entities on the planet: the U.S. government and the media.
Much has already been said about the supposed liberties the screenwriter, Billy Ray, takes with the relationship between the FBI investigator and the local reporter, Kathy Scruggs, who breaks Jewell’s story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a move that probably caused the investigation to become more pronounced and prolonged than it ever would have been given the absolute lack of evidence the FBI had on Jewell.
I’ll let others deal with those criticisms (although it’s absurd to suggest that a reporter known for using anything at her disposal to get a tip would consider what Ray suggests off-limits, whether it happened in this case or not).
I’d rather focus on an element of the story that has been relatively overlooked: the fact that what happened to Richard Jewell, an average man living an average, after school special life, falling on the average part of the spectrum of morality (leaning a bit more toward the good), became the focus of a smear campaign by highly cynical power-players (an FBI agent and reporter both annoyed by having to mingle with the yokels at a Kenny Rogers’ concert) seeking to assuage their thwarted ambitions. And that what happened to Jewell could, quite literally, happen to any of us.
Because that, as I watched the film, is what stood out far more than questions of whether or not reporters sleep with sources for information (they do); whether the FBI is often overzealous in investigating the wrong people (quite obviously, given recent events, we know that’s true); or whether or not those two entities could band together, come to the wrong conclusions and nearly destroy a man’s life (again, read the news today and you’ll see that scenario everywhere).
What Eastwood and Ray have done here is created a powerhouse of subtlety. It’s a film that challenges all of us to distinguish between average and stupid (turns out Jewell is a helluva lot smarter than anyone thinks) and asks that we be brave enough to speak up for ourselves when everyone — even those trying to help us like the wonderful Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney — is telling us not to speak. And demands that we be aware of the fact that there are forces that can come into our lives and “try to fry us” for being heroes if it helps those forces achieve their ambitions.
Richard Jewell is a fantastic film with performances that will break your heart in the best way — Kathy Bates as Jewell’s devoted mother and Paul Walter Hauser as the man himself, in particular.
But more than that, it’s the story of a man who, in trying hard to do good — perhaps overzealously and a bit awkwardly — figures out that, ultimately, it’s up to him to decide to speak up and defend himself in the face of forces he admires, that are bigger and stronger, and yet still very, very wrong.
Richard Jewell, in the end, saves himself. And that — even though the narratives about big government, big media, and abuse of power are compelling and necessary — is the most important lesson the film offers.
Sarah Lee is a freelance writer living and working in Washington, D.C.