Richard Jewell just might be a contender for the most unintentionally ironic movie ever made. It tells the story of a wrongly accused man, but it does justice to no one. Not Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), the man who is once again shamelessly exploited to promote an agenda, and certainly not those who admittedly first did the exploiting. Yet the movie so twists and contorts its depiction of those it casts as Jewell’s opposition, it completely distracts from the subject itself, which is that of a man caught in a storm that was just perfect enough to upend his life.
The facts of the events are there at least. In 1996, Richard Jewell was an ex-cop who clashed with many of his former bosses, and as a result was working security in Atlanta during the Olympics rather than a beat. After he discovered a bomb in a backpack, Jewell alerted authorities and was instrumental in evacuating the area and saving many lives. After being hailed as a hero, Jewell’s name was leaked to the press as a suspect in the bombing, resulting in a government investigation and negative media attention that plowed through his life with the force of a wrecking ball.
Even a casual perusal of Jewell’s situation is a disturbing harbinger of things to come: the self-perpetuating feeding frenzy of the 24-hour news cycle, the dawn of the internet and its tendencies to perpetuate vicious conspiracy theories, the rise of extremism and terrorism, and most disturbingly, the radicalization of young white men. But director Clint Eastwood and writer Billy Ray are mostly interested in a topic of the persecuted white man, especially from those pesky media and government elites and in a time when women and other marginalized groups are demanding more of a voice.
This isn’t just the movie’s main point, it insists on hammering this message home over and over. Everything that makes Jewell an all-American guy, from the many guns he owns to his respect for authority, and most especially, the close bond he has with the mother he lives with, are taken as signs of his culpability. Nevermind that audiences conservative and liberal alike tend to embrace stories of villains which involve a quiet, lone male who has a singular devotion to his mother, with Norman Bates from Psycho being the most iconic example. How much more interesting, and how much more motivated would we be to think about our own complicity, our own willingness to judge, if Richard Jewell had been less insistent on depicting its subject’s innocence, and leaving it more of an open question? How would we interpret his actions?
Much of the backlash is largely due to its depiction of journalist Kathy Scruggs, and the fact that her character exchanges sex for information. While that’s obviously problematic, it’s only one of many ways the movie completely disrespects Scruggs, who from the start is depicted as very friendly with her male colleagues and hostile to her female ones. She sashays up to FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in a sexy outfit and is not only the one to propose sex but almost insists while he tries to remain professional. Her main concern is getting the stories that will grab the most attention. As if that weren’t enough, Scruggs isn’t even allowed to be good at her job. She asks a male colleague to help her write the story, to do that “better word things you do,” since she’s apparently a journalist who can’t do the most basic part of her job.
Wilde has tried her best to make the backlash against her character about a lack of acceptance of complex, unlikable, sexual women, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding at best, and gaslighting at worst. The fact that people are focused on her rather than Hamm’s FBI agent is absolutely about gender, but it’s due to the fact that Wilde’s character is a personification of all the worst, most pernicious stereotypes about not only the media, but women as well. She’s basically an objectified male version of what a female rebel looks like, a horrific spin on the Cool Girl. And she is humiliated in a way Hamm is not. She’s called ambitious like it’s a slur, humiliated and insulted at her workplace, and is eventually reduced to tears of remorse for her actions.
The most ironic detail about this whole story might also be the most significant thing Scruggs and Jewell have in common, which is that neither of them are alive to comment. Jewell died in 2007 from heart failure and complications from diabetes, while Scruggs overdosed on pain pills in 2001, which her friends and family stated was directly related to the stress caused by the lawsuit Jewell brought against the paper she worked for. Even more frustrating, the man who actually perpetrated the crime Jewell was accused of did indeed go on to hurt others by bombing two abortion clinics and a lesbian bar. Not that the movie mentions this, or how women were not only the prime targets of the real culprit, but that a police officer was killed as a result of one of the abortion bombings.
The simple fact is, none of this will matter to a conservative audience already inclined towards the message the movie sends, since it targets their two favorite boogeymen – the government and the media. And the cast, which also includes Sam Rockwell as a lawyer who determinedly fights for Jewell, Kathy Bates as Jewell’s saintly mother, sells the hell out of it. In a sense, this negative review might as well be free advertising for an audience hungry to endorse their belief in their own persecution rather than any kind of nuanced discourse.