I was so excited when I learned that you were going to write and direct a movie about Richard Jewell, the real-life security guard who found a bomb during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was subsequently wrongfully accused by the FBI of planting it.
After your documentary, O.J: Made in America, took home the 2017 Oscar for Best Documentary, I was eager to see what you would do with the Richard Jewell case, which was the perfect, sordid marriage of American injustice and 90s tabloid media. This topic seemed to fit neatly in your wheelhouse. What you had done so brilliantly with O.J.: Made in America was immerse the audience in the social, racial, and legal climate of an era to provide context for a world which witnessed – and was obliquely complicit in - letting a god-like athlete get away with murder. For Jewell, the world witnessed – and was obliquely complicit in – the reckless assassination of his character.
Unlike Simpson, Jewell’s ordeal has mostly faded from memory. The facts here – that Jewell was railroaded by an FBI without evidence, and a media hungry for eyeballs – are undisputed. He was a hero, and then a villain, and finally a teachable moment for law-enforcement and media on how not to ruin an innocent man’s life.
I believe you would have given us a thought-provoking film with dimension and subtext. You might have recapped how the 1990s saw multiple, bloody missteps by the FBI. Their abysmal handling of the sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, directly contributed to Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols’ decision to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City. One of the FBI’s few triumphs had been the capture and conviction of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski after decades of evasion. Without letting them off the hook, you would have primed us for how, by the time of the Olympic bombing in 1996, a government agency profiling under-achieving white males as terrorists had become commonplace. Add to it the nascent 24 hour news cycle, and the mass proliferation of tabloid journalism outlets which made millions of dollars profiting from real-life scandals like the John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt case, the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan ordeal, the Amy Fisher shooting, and their jewel in the crown, the O.J. Simpson murders. The hunger for these salacious stories changed the way we consumed information and challenged the established media.
I have no doubt that you would have absolutely killed this movie. Instead, Clint Eastwood killed it, and not in a good way.
What could have been a fascinating portrait of an agency in chaos, a media fueled by greed, and a man vilified for doing the right thing, sadly, only delivers the latter. Richard Jewell claims to be based on the Vanity Fair article and a book, The Suspect, but completely fabricates a transactional sexual liaison between a composite FBI agent, and Kathy Scruggs, a very real journalist in search of a scoop. This is a movie about a person who was eviscerated by the media, which then gleefully misrepresents the legacy of a female journalist. That it was written by the same writer of Shattered Glass, a film about journalistic accountability, is disappointing. That it was directed by a man who willfully killed an ex-girlfriend‘s career, is not at all surprising.
For Eastwood, the only saving grace to come of the inclusion of this lazy, sexist “lady reporter fucks source” trope, and the uproar it has caused, is that it might distract viewers from the story’s ham-fisted, jingoism, which gives the bad guys exactly one character trait (arrogance), and misses a golden opportunity to illustrate a pivotal moment in recent social history. Instead, Richard Jewell’s sophomoric posturing exists to reinforce Eastwood’s obvious Trumpian leanings (media and FBI bad), and his status as the savior of the white, male underdog.
Initially, you intended to make this film with Jonah Hill as producer and lead. After seeing Eastwood’s casting choices, I give him credit for going in another direction. His Jewell, played by Paul Walter Hauser, is the only reason to see this film. What we are witnessing with Hauser is the emergence of a riveting actor who dominates every scene he’s in, not with force, but with sheer, unadulterated talent. Watching Hauser is like watching performances by (the late) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or Paul Giamatti, or John C. Reilly – all of whom command the audience’s attention by making organic, honest choices, and who are equally adept at mining the truth in comedy or tragedy (see his scene-stealing work in I, Tonya for confirmation). I can’t think of any actor who has emerged in the last few years who is as watchable as Hauser.
Sharing the screen with Hauser is Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother Bobi, and the two share a natural, lived-in chemistry. Sam Rockwell is pitch perfect as Jewell’s stubborn lawyer, Watson Bryant, a man who is as skeptical of authority as Jewell is blindly obedient. The scenes these three share in the Jewell’s home are the backbone of the film, as Bryant struggles to rein in his client, a law-enforcement sycophant who routinely pushed the boundaries of his past security jobs, and kept a small arsenal of weapons in his closet. The closest this film gets to nuance is illustrating how Jewell was not the perfect victim, and despite his contradictions, was not deserving of the abuse he suffered throughout the ordeal.
Kathy Scruggs, however, is given no such opportunity to clear her name. She is portrayed as a hyper-sexualized, power-hungry reporter who is willing to compromise journalistic integrity for a spot on the front page. Olivia Wilde does her best with what she was given but delivers a caricature of the type of woman for whom the attribute “ambitious” is a synonym for slut. It’s a tired and egregious characterization that would have felt cartoonish for a fictional character. But the fact that these traits are imposed on the memory of a very real person, undercuts the film’s entire raison d’etre. Clint might as well have given her a mustache to twirl.
It’s unfortunate that you didn’t get the chance to bring your vision of this story to the screen. The best thing about your O.J. doc was how you didn’t once seem interested in O.J.’s guilt or innocence. You laid out the facts, and opinions from relevant interview subjects, and assumed your audience was intelligent enough to connect the dots and draw their own conclusions. Jewell was indeed innocent, but Eastwood, darling of the right-wing everyman, shows his contempt for his audience by assuming they aren’t equipped to handle anything short of blunt force trauma.
Until we meet again,