Industry commentators were somewhat taken aback by Kathy Bates’ Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in Clint Eastwood’s latest “fact-based” drama, Richard Jewell. Not only was this seen as the sacrilegious nod that knocked Hustlers’ Jennifer Lopez out of the Oscar race, but it was also for a film few had pegged as an awards contender.
There are several commendable performances in Richard Jewell – Bates’ among them – that lift an otherwise stolid, workmanlike entry into the filmography of the 89-year-old Eastwood. “The world will know his name and the truth”, insists the rather intense tagline, which depicts the rise, fall and admonishment of a lowly security guard fingered for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing of 27 July 1996. Pitched somewhere between Forrest Gump and Paul Blart: Mall Cop by Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya, Late Night), Jewell goes from American hero to prime suspect overnight after an FBI investigation is leaked to a local journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde).
Scruggs, and her paymasters at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution (AJC) newspaper, are effectively the villains of the piece, lambasted by Eastwood for their unethical journalistic practices (Scruggs is shown trading sex with Jon Hamm’s FBI agent in return for information). Jewell, in return, is the placid victim of circumstance. A gun-obsessed loner who still lives with his mother into his thirties may fit the FBI profile, but Jewell’s only real crime in the film is his blind devotion to law and order (“I’m law enforcement too”, he mutters continually). It’s only after the intervention of bulldog attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) that Richard starts fighting back against his accusers.
Jewell, who died in 2007 at the age of 44, is immortalised here as a lovable NRA-nut victimised for doing his job and saving lives. Whether this is Eastwood in rose-tinted-glasses mode (see also American Sniper) is debatable, but his palpable distrust of the media – and the scathing portrayal of Scruggs, who passed away in 2001, in particular – distracts from the decent chemistry between Hauser, Rockwell and Bates. Hamm’s Agent Shaw is perhaps the most morally-intriguing character of the piece, but even he winds up with the same stance held at the beginning of the film – that Jewell is “guilty as hell”.
Bates’ Oscar nomination and a rather surreal Macarena dance sequence aside, the main response to Richard Jewell around its US release has been a defamation suit filed against Eastwood and Warner Bros. for the film’s alleged portrayal of late AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, which even Wilde has failed to defend. It’s a pity, as in other hands Jewell’s story and subsequent exoneration may have compelled more positive discussions around the type of injustice and media witch-hunts we still see regularly over twenty years on.