Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 14, 2019 7:34 pm 
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The wrong man

There are Hitchcockian moments in Richard Jewell, not only due to its "wrong man" theme. But basically it is a typical no-nonsense late-stage Clint Eastwood movie. (He is 89 and has 71 acting and 41 directing credits.) It's one of a recent series of true stories about ordinary heroes he has filmed including the superior Sully and the lackluster 15:17 to Paris. But Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, amazing) is a weird kind of hero and an abused one. He finds a domestic terrorist's hidden pipe bomb at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics while he is working as a security guard. Through his efforts most of those in danger from the explosion are saved, though one dies and 111 are injured. For a few days he is celebrated as a hero in the national news and inundated with attention, even the offer of a book deal. But then the FBI targets him as the chief suspect and this is broadcast by the media, starting with the Atlanta Constitution's reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). After over two months the FBI gives up its investigation without bringing charges against Jewell. But his life and that of his mother Bobi (Cathy Bates) with whom he lives have been made miserable and he has been dishonored.

This is seen as a complex movie. One reason is it's hard to see where it's going. But the motive seems simple. Clint wants to show us that the government, as represented by the FBI, can't be trusted, and that the press and TV is a bunch of jackals out to get any unprotected victim. But the case is specific and interesting. There is nonstop action that holds the viewer's attention for the two hours and a few minutes. Richard Jewell, wonderfully embodied in the big, chubby Hauser (who shone also in I, Tonya) is indeed complicated. He has a history of far overstepping his rank, particularly as a campus cop, a role he used to pull people off the highway and threaten students drinking in their rooms. He wants to be a hero. He has an arsenal of weaponry, and lives with his mother. He's white. This fits the profile of a certain kind of terrorist who plants a bomb to appear to save people.

So the FBI has justification for targeting Jewell. But he doesn't deserve it. He has a lawyer he considers a friend, who becomes his lawyer now and is the movie's other hero, a man he got to know while working as a mail clerk where the man had an office. His name is Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) and Watson, with his Russian associate Nadia (Nina Arianda), becomes Richard's aggressive protector. Richard needs him. He has a naive respect of "law enforcement" that tends to make him let the FBI walk all over him. Richard is a nice guy, who kept Watson supplied with Snickers bars and gave out free soft drinks to other employees at Centennial Park. He's overzealous. But was he overzealous in worrying about the suspicious abandoned backpack under the bench, when other employees urged him to ignore it? This was the right time to be that way.

The movie demonizes the FBI and the press. (It also uses authentic footage of major TV like Tom Brokow talking about the targeted Richard Jewell.) The FBI is cunningly embodied in Jon Hamm, as a composite figure, Tom Shaw. Hamm is an excellent choice, an actor good at appearing impressive, but also somehow suspicious, as he is famously in playing the iconic Don Draper of "Mad Men," one of the best shows of this TV Golden Age decade.

To say that Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Jon Hamnm, and Kathy Bates play their roles broadly is an understatement, but they are very watchable in this entertaining and perhaps troubling movie. They hold the screen, but Hauser dominates it.

The tilting of the dial goes too far in the representation of the press as what Watson calls them, "jackals," ready to so anything for a juicy headline. The Atlanta Constitution is suing Warner Brotehrs for how they are represented, and Kathy Scruggs is deceased and cannot defend herself. According to the screenplay by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Hunger Games, Captain Phillips), Kathy and Shaw are already pals and both working at Centennial Park at the time of the bomb, which catches them by surprise. Kathy tells Shaw she hopes they find a suspect fast and prays he'll be interesting. The screenplay's lurid invented scene where Kathy trades sex with FBI boss Shaw for the info that their prime target has become Jewell is reprehensible, a too-blunt smear on Clint's two targets. Shaw whispers the secret and they go off to consummate the deal. Next day Kathy is applauded in the City Room for the immediate screaming front page headline in the Atlanta Constitution.

So this is a seriously flawed film, but one with excellent acting and an unusual protagonist that provides food for thought. The action itself draws you in, but you watch the movie for the remarkable larger-then-life naturalism of Paul Walter Hauser. The folowup after a rather implausible scene where Richard at last eloquently stands up to the FBI guys and a quick scene where they formally drop the case, is that six years later after he had carried out three more bombings, the anti-abortion terrorist Eric Rudolph was captured and confessed. It's shown that Richard is working at a police station again, a sign his reputation was cleared. But his nightmares still remain.

The score is by a typically savvy Eastwood choice, Cuban-American jazz great Arturo Sandoval.

Richard Jewell, 129 mins., debuted at AFI Fest Nov. 20, 2019 and opened theatrically in the US Dec. 13. Metascore 69%.

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