December 18, 2019 – Clint Eastwood's latest film takes on the FBI and the media over their unfair treatment of a security guard who found a bomb and saved lives during 1996 Summer Olympic events in Atlanta. If this plot, literally about a “witch hunt” and “fake news” sounds familiar, its because those specific topics have been all over the news for the past three years.
The film is based on a magazine article and book, “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle” (2019), by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, which chronicles Richard Jewell's life.
Richard Jewell (played by Paul Walter Hauser of “I, Tonya”) is an overweight former police officer and a security guard with a checkered past. He is fired as a campus cop for being overly zealous and physically aggressive with students, and for exceeding his authority.
Jewell lives with his mother, Bobi Jewell (Kathy Bates of “On the Basis of Sex”) and has a huge collection of guns, as well as a souvenir hand grenade. He wants to be a policeman more than anything, but he's just a little too much of an oddball to fit into police departments that demand a lot of conformity.
When the Summer Olympics rolls into Atlanta in 1996, there are plenty of jobs for a security guard, and Jewell gets one guarding a concert venue (where we witness Kenny Rogers singing his signature hit song, “The Gambler”). During another concert, Jewell spots a backpack left under a bench and insists upon clearing the area around it and calling in a bomb specialist. He knows the protocol, and it works. The area is cleared before the bomb goes off, keeping casualties low. Jewell is a hero. He has saved lives.
The FBI has no clue who planted the bomb, but they know who found it. Based on past events, including a bomb that was planted, then “discovered” by a Los Angeles policeman trying to impress his superiors at the Olympics in 1984, and based on Jewell's psychological profile, he looks suspicious. His guns, his hand grenade, his knowledge of explosives, and his odd behavior, including his tendency to talk too much to informants and to investigators, all make him a very convenient suspect.
The FBI, led by Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm of “The Report”) take advantage of Jewell's respect for the FBI and try to fool him into waiving his Miranda rights for a mock training interview, but Jewell won't fall for it. He calls the only attorney he knows, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell of “Moon”) who advises him not to talk to anyone. Jewell, however, likes to talk to the FBI, and continues to hurt his own case.
In an almost cartoonish scene, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde of “The Lazarus Effect”) seduces Tom Shaw to get the story on Jewell being a suspect. In this movie, Scruggs is played like a vamp. Overnight, Jewell goes from hero to villain in the media. Jewell, his mother and his lawyer are hounded by the media.
There is a nice scene late in the film when Jewell addresses Shaw and his other FBI accusers directly, exposing the fact that they really have no hard evidence against him. Eventually, the FBI officially abandons its case against Jewell, in a letter to Jewell, personally delivered by Shaw, who still says he thinks Jewell is guilty.
Jewell, his mother, and attorney Watson Bryant all come out looking like heroes, while Shaw is a clear villain. Scruggs comes across a bit more nuanced as she finally figures out that Jewell is getting a raw deal and feels bad about her part in vilifying him.
The movie does depart from the facts of the case in several ways. The arrogant character Agent Shaw character is made up of several different agents. He didn't really exist as such, but the FBI did do a lot of things to Jewell that were shown in the film. The FBI director at the time, Louis Freeh, a noted micromanager, was not in the movie, but he was involved in the case, playing a key role in an interview scene in the movie that largely omits Freeh's influence.
The real Kathy Scruggs (she died in 2001) is depicted in the movie as a vamp with bad journalistic ethics. Those who knew her said she found out about Jewell being a suspect in the case not by prostituting herself, but by hard work, developing good law enforcement sources over many years, according to fact check of the movie done by Slate magazine.
The film does mention the real bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, who confessed to the Olympic bombing but little is made of the fact that Rudolph committed three more bombings, causing a death and injuries, after the Olympic bombing, and before he was caught in 2003. The film completely omits Rudolph's anti-socialist, anti-abortion and anti-homosexual rationalizations for his bombings, based on his Christian faith.
Jewell filed numerous lawsuits and won settlements from his former employer, Piedmont College, from CNN and NBC totaling over $1 million. Jewell also sued the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but the newspaper refused to settle and Jewell lost the case in court.
I enjoyed the performances of Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates, but the character of Tom Shaw is too one dimensional. The late Kathy Scruggs is smeared so badly in this film that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution specifically requested a prominent disclaimer in the film, before it was released, about the parts of the story about Scruggs that were fictionalized. I mention this specifically as a journalist myself. It is a fact that you cannot libel the dead, so it is legally safe to do it, but is it fair to portray a hard working reporter, Scruggs, as a bimbo? This portrayal seems misogynistic, and I don't like it.
Nevertheless, this movie has three strong characters. The story is compelling and it is a good movie, like many Clint Eastwood films. The acting is good and there is some really good, sharp dialog. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.