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'Richard Jewell': Director Clint Eastwood Plays It Straight With a Story of Injustice

, | January 10, 2020 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies. 

Richard Jewell, written by Billy Ray and directed by Clint Eastwood, based on the Marie Brenner Vanity Fair article, American Nightmare; and the book by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle.

Editor's Note: Richard Jewell -- find tickets here -- hasn't done well at the box office, but it's definitely worth seeing. Catch it at a theater near you while you can.

Director Clint Eastwood stays close to the source materials of how FBI and media ran with the false assumption that security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Centennial Park bomber. The main discrepancy is that, in the book, United States Attorney Kent Alexander (co-author of the book) hand-delivered Jewell’s clearance letter, not the main FBI agent, Don Johnson (played by Jon Hamm, as composite character called “Tom Shaw”).

Even the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recent hissy-fit about the movie's portrayal of their late colleague Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) -- shown as having traded a sexual favor to Shaw for information on the FBI's suspect -- shows the paper’s continual stubbornness. The book documents that Scruggs developed a reputation for sleeping with sources and Johnson, the real-life agent who leaked Jewell as prime suspect -- himself a philanderer -- would likely not have been immune to her charms.

There was no closing post-script in the movie to say Scruggs died of a drug overdose in her 40s. Johnson, too, remained bitter until the end. Even when the manhunt for actual bomber Eric Rudolph began, Johnson was still convinced Jewell was his man. Johnson essentially chain-smoked himself to death in his 50s.

The book, written by a lawyer and a Wall Street Journal reporter, unsurprisingly considers the legal and financial ramifications of various institutions’ libelous actions. When all was said and done, Jewell's former employer, Piedmont College, along with NBC, the New York Post and CNN settled pending libel cases out of court to the fine tune of $1.5 million. The film mostly avoids this litigious tone, only showing Jewell’s lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), approaching the AJC requesting a retraction of the story. Neither a retraction nor a financial settlement ever came from the AJC.

The filmmakers instead took the higher road of telling a professional vocation story. Jewell’s only “crime,” from what I can tell, was an overzealous attitude toward the law enforcement profession that he loved. As agents scour the apartment where he is temporarily living with his mother (Kathy Bates) for “evidence,” Jewell offers his unsolicited assistance to the point of being obsequious.

Bryant chastises Jewell, asking him why he would want work in such a profession, the pinnacle of which the FBI, when it operates more akin to the Keystone Cops? Jewell still believes in law enforcement, even if those highest up in the chain of command tend to be the most corrupt. The title character’s joy shows the completion of his arc: Jewell in fact, was eventually commissioned a deputy in small-town Georgia.

The true brilliance of the movie was showing that whatever pure intentions a person like Jewell brings to making an institution better, it helps when said institution at least functions as what it purports to be. The FBI gathers hard evidence on certain crimes and hands it over to the Department of Justice who decides what to charge, if anything. One would hope the process is done honestly.

Instead, an initial meeting of agents plays more like a writer’s-room pitch meeting, where characters are developed. The time wasted building a pop-psychological profile would have been better spent timing the walk from where the bomb was discovered to the phone booth of Rudolph’s 911 bomb-scare call. That simplest of tasks would have deducted the impossibility of Jewell’s complicity with the crime.

“Writer’s room” moves to “production stage" in the movie, as Shaw brings Jewell into the FBI regional office under the pretense of a “training video.” A third scene shows the agents recording voice samples. Shaw functions as the “director,” and Jewell as the “actor,” as Shaw asks for more takes, said in different moods. It’s a sly wink from Eastwood.

The FBI, for all their attempts at a Hollywood “production,” should have focused on fact-gathering and left the storytelling up to the professional filmmakers.

Image: Warner Bros.

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