On my favorite film discussion board, a topic lately has been what I’m calling “The Two Popes Dilemma.” How does one evaluate a “based on a true story” movie that plays fast and loose with well-documented facts, yet is an engrossing drama with strong performances? (The recent Netflix drama starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as Popes Francis and Benedict illustrates this splendidly, thus my name for the dilemma.) The consensus in my group was that blatant inaccuracy should knock such films down a few notches in critical estimation; thus, for me, The Two Popes drops from four stars to a pair of stars.
Alas, Richard Jewell, the latest film directed by Clint Eastwood, does not even have the artistic merits of The Two Popes, or heck, his own American Sniper. His 2014 release at least did an excellent job of re-creating wartime Iraq and building suspense, while boasting a superb performance from Bradley Cooper in the lead. Unfortunately, American Sniper bought into the fictions spun by its confabulating subject Chris Kyle. Also, with five years of perspective, one can now see that it’s part of a disturbing trend by Eastwood – seen subsequently in The 15:17 to Paris and The Mule – to demonize people who don’t look or believe like him.
Despicably, in Richard Jewell, Eastwood takes a break from racism to give misogyny a whirl. Compounding his offense, his victim Kathy Scruggs isn’t even alive to defend herself. The former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, who died in 2001, is shown by Eastwood to have gotten into an FBI agent’s pants to obtain her big story, that the FBI’s prime suspect in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing was security guard Richard Jewell. There’s no evidence for this defamation of a dead reporter, still esteemed by her former colleagues for her zeal and diligence.
What’s more astonishing to me is that Olivia Wilde was willing to play Scruggs. Wilde touts herself as a feminist and made her feature directing debut last year with the female-empowering (and delightful) Booksmart. Well, props to you, Ms. Wilde: you’ve turned the clock back 50 years in assenting to play a stereotyped, cleavage-brandishing, slutty mean girl all grown up.
Sadly, the good performances in this film are squandered on what would’ve been a subpar effort even without this fatal flaw. Paul Walter Hauser (prior to this, relegated to lesser roles in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman) is excellent as the title character, a man who should’ve been a hero for his discovery of the pipe bombs and prevention of further harm by them. Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates are comparably solid as his defense attorney and his mother.
Their skills are wasted, however. Kathy Bates’ proud moment, as she sees her son praised on national news, is undermined by Hallmark-y piano music. Rockwell, meanwhile, is forced to utter clichéd lines like “this interrogation is over!” to the FBI agents; and “are you ready to start fighting back,” to signal that he and Jewell are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
Eastwood’s framing of early scenes is flaccid and dull. The Olympic crowds, supposedly excited to sing with Kenny Rogers and dance to “Macarena,” seem phony in their enthusiasm. Ironically, only with the death and mayhem of the bombing and its aftermath does this film spring to life.
It saddens me that movies such as this and The 15:17 to Paris were helmed by the same man who gave us Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby. One scene in Richard Jewell, of a press conference featuring Rockwell and Bates, clumsily has Rockwell out of focus for part of it. I’m left to wonder: is Eastwood, like our dotard President, solely surrounding himself with yes men who won’t point out obvious errors to him?
Like our President, Eastwood is dragging down those around him. The screenwriter for Richard Jewell, Billy Ray, has previously crafted scripts for intelligent films such as Captain Phillips and State of Play. Here, the messages are so ham-fisted and bumper sticker formulaic that one of them is actually on a bumper sticker: the camera repeatedly shows us “I fear government more than I fear terrorism” prominently displayed in Rockwell’s office.
During this past decade, Eastwood has become the director you can count on to deliver the wrong message at the wrong time. You get his mounting Islamophobia and Latinx stereotyping that track with Trump’s rise to power. In a similar ascent, from J. Edgar, to Sully, and now with Richard Jewell, you have an increasingly paranoid preoccupation with virtuous men battling malign institutions.
Could Eastwood’s timing be any worse, when a thriving press and the good public servants still in our institutions are two of the main forces fending off the Trumpublican rise of authoritarian fascism? Mr. Eastwood: for the sake of our country, whose waving flags so regularly populate your movies, it’s long past time for you to retire.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )