In Richard Jewell, a movie about the security guard who found what’s known as the Centennial Park bomb during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was falsely implicated in planting it, the villains are more starkly delineated than the heroes. The bad guys are the government, represented by an unscrupulous FBI agent (Jon Hamm), and the media, represented by a sleazy reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Olivia Wilde), who wrote a story identifying Jewell as the subject of the FBI’s investigation.
It’s the Trump-iest movie you’ve ever seen, set a full 20 years before the election of the famously press-bashing president. That’s perhaps no surprise, coming from director Clint Eastwood, who has professed his admiration for Trump. But it does seem a little weird from the pen of screenwriter Billy Bay, whose Shattered Glass, while detailing the journalistic malpractice of disgraced reporter Stephen Glass, at least respected the standards of the news profession. Wilde’s Kathy Scruggs is implied to have slept with Hamm’s Tom Shaw for information, and she gleefully celebrates her scoop by fist-pumping her way around the AJC newsroom.
There’s plenty of room for outrage over suspicions that fell on an innocent man, without resorting to demonizing reporters and law enforcement officers as caricatures of corruption.
On the other side is the title character, a nerdy, overweight rent-a-cop who, as the film opens, is about to get fired from his college campus security job for his overly aggressive harassment of pot-smoking undergrads. Played by Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) with a nuance and commitment that makes it seem like he was born for the part, Richard is mocked for his girth, for his large collection of guns, and for his inability to tamp down his uncool, almost grandiose enthusiasm for “law enforcement.”
Richard doesn’t look like a hero, but instead its opposite, as his attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) is constantly reminding him. As Watson, Rockwell often steals the spotlight, playing his client’s most ardent defender and, when called for, his most dismayed life coach, as Richard finds himself naively playing into the hands of his enemies again and again.
And make no mistake: The press and the law are depicted not just as Richard’s nemeses, but as the enemy of the people, pursuing manufactured agendas and cutting ethical corners. The film isn’t so much a dispassionate look at the very real mistakes made by well-intentioned people as it is an indictment of entire institutions.
Richard Jewell is a handsome film about the frightening possibility of false accusation. But coming as it does in 2019, its vilification of reporters and the feds is even scarier.