This review contains some spoilers for the 15:17 to Paris and some spoilers for Richard Jewell (although mostly they follow the known story of the real events! So if you know of those, you should be fine!)
I have to admit it – at first, I was very confused by what I thought about Richard Jewell. I mean, where does a film stand when it is focused on the story of a man doing the right thing once, who has an evidently destructive and questionable past, getting caught up in an FBI investigation. I have to say, I was quite fixated on the political leanings, and so when it turns out that Jewell owns stacks upon stacks of guns and that he is so enamoured and/or intimidated by the FBI that his reaction to their obvious attempts to frame him for the Centennial Park bombing is to be entirely submissive and compliant despite the fact that his life is on the line. Initially, I was mostly confused and also slightly frustrated by this almost comical presentation of Jewell as a centrist of some sort, but after some thought, I clicked with what Eastwood was really trying to say about modern America, specifically about the power held by the Government and by the FBI.
As Sam Rockwell’s Watson Bryant directly tells Jewell upon the question ‘How can they do this?’ that the FBI can derail a life ‘Because you’re nothing’, it suddenly becomes clearer. And there’s no doubt that the line “I fear government more than I fear terrorism’ also clearly spells out a thing or two about what Eastwood is trying to do here. Let’s not forget that one of his most recent films, The 15:17 To Paris (2018) also tapped into the true story of a group of typical ‘great American heroes’ who we see grow up with the illusion of the American Dream and of patriotism through warfare/the fight against terrorism, etc, and that in that film they actually do getaway from the situation (mostly) unscathed. There is a clear mismatch in the ideas at play, and whilst in The 15:17 To Paris the heroic action occurs outside of America and only after the boys have come to realise that some, or even the majority, of what they were told about America and even the war on terror as children was untrue, in the case of Richard Jewell, Richard is still completely blind to the realities of his situation, and his heroic action occurs in the heart of America (especially seeing as it is set during the 1996 Olympics, which only adds to the spotlight on America specifically).
The dynamic created by this difference is so clear. The 15:17 To Paris ends with the typical fanfare expected, and unsurprisingly the film was mostly disliked for its treatment of the heroes (okay, the acting is pretty bad too, but these people aren’t professionals…), and whilst Richard Jewell may technically have the happy ending of Jewell being free, there is something much darker and much more unexpectedly ominous bubbling away underneath, coming from the nuances like the scenes of clear trauma and even the text cards that close the film and say that Jewell passed on in 2007 due to heart failure, whilst a few moments in the film imply that these issues really started due to his ruthless treatment from the FBI and from the media. It is the same nuances that really get to what Eastwood is trying to say, too – that Richard Jewell is a victim of America. He has been brought up, as he says himself directly to the FBI, to believe that to be a member of the United States government is the highest calling a mortal man can receive, and he spends the majority of the film clearly under American tradition – he owns those stacks of guns I mentioned earlier on (that initially had me confused about the political leanings of the film, but become clearer under this lens), he is so infatuated with the idea of being involved in Public service, when the media confronts him he is excited and open to doing whatever they say (and the same can be said for the FBI, despite their clear and repeated attempts to deceive Jewell) – and yet all of these things cause narrative trouble for Jewell as he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into disillusion and denial.
Richard Jewell has been sold the deceptive American Dream since birth, much like a lamb to the slaughter. It comes through with his idolising of American iconography, in his need to own (a lot of) weapons, in his admiration of the FBI, the government and the media, in his want to have power (shown mostly by the scene towards the start of the film that sees him get into trouble for going outside of his jurisdiction in an attempt to stop crime whilst working at a University), and in so many other things, too. And it becomes clear to the audience quite early on (after Richard’s change in views on power and how it should be used, or even how it should be measured) that America is not the place for Jewell’s humanitarianism, or the humanitarianism of anybody else for that matter. It is too focused on how things look from an outside perspective, and the power of the media and of the government also means that people alone don’t stand a chance. Of course, Eastwood’s looking at the deception of the American Dream, particularly when involving war, is nothing new, and neither is his focus on people getting into trouble (DEEP trouble) simply for doing their jobs in an exemplary way (I’m looking at you, Sully!), but this overarching focus on power hierarchies in America and how they can make these positive actions mean nothing is genuinely the most caustic Eastwood has been towards America in his entire career (maybe with the single exception of Letters From Iwo Jima, though this one is more focused on America’s self destruction). Let’s not forget, the man is 89 years old, and has most definitely seen it all, and so he knows plenty about his home country. The fact that he is able to take this story of just one man faced with the power of the media and the government, and that he is able to also show that Jewell has been framed from his birth by the government into being essentially radicalised by America itself (the questions thrown at him by Rockwell’s Bryant about extremist groups are brilliant. Jewell’s emphasis on saying that ‘I don’t like those groups’ despite being part of the biggest one on Earth is a great moment), only goes to show that Eastwood most definitely still knows what he’s doing.
I also can’t not talk about the moment when Jewell says to the FBI that their actions have only worked to place fear into and to effectively stop people in the future from reporting such issues as potential terrorist threats. In fact, the entire ‘courtroom’ scene is just brilliant as we finally see Paul Walter Hauser’s Jewell come out of his shell and realise what has happening to him because of the ideologies he has been sold his entire life. And what a performance Hauser gives. The same can really be said for the entire cast, but I found that Hauser especially perfectly held in this disillusionment and this uncertainty that comes with the realisation that the ideas you’ve been brought up to understand as patriotic and positive are the exact opposite. Jewell cares for people on both a personal and a collective level, and is almost killed for this belief simply because the FBI know that they have the ability to quieten their bosses and avoid trouble in doing so.
As the brilliant Filipe Furtado says, Rockwell’s Watson Bryant is essentially Eastwood placed into the film as a character (Furtado’s point of Rockwell even essentially ‘directing’ Jewell through his court case blew my mind a little, I must say!), which also makes things more interesting as he places himself in the role of the saviour (I feel like the only reason Eastwood himself didn’t play the part was the issue with age and authenticity, but who can really say other than Eastwood himself?). In fact, the focus on the supporting ensemble is brilliant, with each character being seen through such a specific perspective that they could easily become nothing more than empty stereotypes, but Eastwood’s direction elevating the majority of them to something more. I do think that Jon Hamm’s Tom Shaw is a little too one dimensional, especially when he reveals that he knows Jewell isn’t really the culprit but still thinks he’s ‘guilty as hell’ just due to his profile and background, but other than that I think Eastwood gives plenty of space to each character to allow the audience to see the effects that America has had on each of them individually. Jewell and mother Bobi (played by Kathy Bates, who doesn’t get enough screen time for my liking but is great in her scenes!) are both victims of deception and extreme confusion at the hands of the government, Bryant has already figured things out but is still amazed by the toxicity at the heart of his country and Olivia Wilde’s journalist Kathy Scruggs, whilst really quite cold and merciless towards Jewell at first (due to a focus on attaining power and money, two more American ideals!) is also given the time to change when she too realises that she has been sold a lie by not only herself but by the FBI. (I’m not sure why so many seem assured that Eastwood is framing her as the villain of the film when he dedicates an entire scene to her change of heart, and Jon Hamm’s grizzly detective is the one to leak information and to remain assured that Jewell is in fact guilty even after the FBI let him loose… but oh well!)
I think that Eastwood has really managed to sum up his work from the last few years here, and even if I don’t think that this film is quite as good as Sully (2016) or American Sniper (2014), I do think that it is very revealing of Eastwood’s ideas and it is completely fascinating to look into! Reading about and discussing the film has been really interesting, and I’m definitely willing to talk about it more if anyone has any thoughts – I have written more here than for any individual film in quite some time, and have to say I still feel like I’m missing quite a bit… but such is life! Thanks for reading!