‘Richard Jewell’ and Defamation of Character: Movie Review AFI Fest 2019 ☆☆☆

When I took a class in investigative journalism, I wasn’t enchanted by my first teacher and the various speakers did more to horrify me than to encourage interest in digging up dirt. Some seemed ghoulish, yearning to drag skeletons out of the closet and gnaw on the bones, grinding them down to dust.

In Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” you’ll find one such bone-digging journalist, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who is bored that she’s covering a music event linked to the Atlanta Olympics where others might be delighted. And then she’s there on July 27, 1996, when a bomb detonates.

But the movie isn’t about Scruggs. Scruggs is the villain of this piece and the movie is, as the title suggests, about Richard Jewell (December 17, 1962 – August 29, 2007).  Jewell is played by Paul Walter Hauser as a dim but diligent man. We meet him as a supplies guy in a large legal firm and he seems almost creepily hyper-vigilant to the needs of attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). He’s made sure that Bryant has his supply of cellophane tape and, more importantly, Snickers.

Richard would go on to other jobs. At Piedmont College, we see him entering a room as the male occupants complain he doesn’t have a warrant; he informs them he’s had a noise complaint and drinking alcoholic beverages is not allowed, but the men are obviously having a few beers.

Piedmont is a private college with a residential campus on 300 acres in Demorest and Athens, Georgia. The student enrollment for 2019-2020 is 2,571. That’s about the size of your average high school in the US. Think of how cozy and cliquish your high school was and then you’ll see that it is a fish bowl and suspect that Richard was easily identified as one of those kids who would have been marginalized–if not for his weight but also for his slow ways. He’s not quick witted or socially adept. Instead, he depends upon rules and more rules and enforcing them above and beyond the call of his duty or jurisdiction.

Soon after, Richard goes into the president’s office thinking he’s going to get praised  but instead gets fired. Dr. W. Ray Cleere (Charles Green) notes that Richard has been pulling cars off of the highway, something out of the campus police’s jurisdiction, but Richard has his reasons and recalls that Cleere himself said, “I don’t want any Mickey Mousing on this campus.”.  Those reasons become almost comical and Billy Ray’s script allows the audience to laugh at Richard, for now.

When Richard becomes part of the security team for the Olympics, he and his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), see this as a chance for Richard to redeem himself. Bobi and Richard are seen listening to Kenny Rogers sing “The Gambler” at Centennial Olympic Park.It’s a brief moment of joy for them both. Amongst the rest of the Olympic workers, Richard is tolerated, but not necessarily respected.

Richard isn’t even feeling well a few nights later but shows up for his 12-hour shift because one of his favorite groups, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, is performing that evening.  After scolding some drunken concert attendees and bringing back law enforcement to disperse them, he discovers the knapsack. He insists that protocol be followed and notes that when a bomb squad guy turns pale, that means trouble. He warns the people in the sound-and-light tower and assists in pushing the crowd away before the pipe bomb explodes, killing one person and injuring over a hundred people. Another person would die from a heart attack. .

For three days, Richard is a celebrated hero, but, tipped off by Cleere, the FBI team led by Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) becomes suspicious and Richard becomes the focus of their investigation. Richard is investigated and his quirks fit the profile of a “fake hero,” someone who manufactures a tragedy in order to be rewarded with public acclaim and adulation when he rescues others.  Shaw, seduced by the voluptuous vulture Scruggs, reveals the FBI’s suspicions. Scruggs’ newspaper, the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution isn’t the only one with that tip, but they are the first to run it and soon other media outlets are quoting her article. Scruggs becomes the newsroom hero and gloats as Richard’s life is destroyed.

The FBI investigation attempts to have Richard waive his constitution rights under the guise that he’s taking part in a training film about bomb detection for future FBI agents and that part is true and was part of a Justice Department investigation. The report concluded “no intentional violation of Mr. Jewell’s civil rights and no criminal misconduct,” but audiences might think otherwise.

Watson Bryant–now in a low-rent private practice–saves Richard, but constantly struggles with his client who is almost too cooperative and too apologetic. Richard seems to desperately want to be brothers with his law enforcement adversaries and eventually, he reveals the reason that he called Watson Bryant.

One of the FBI agents whom Hamm’s character is based on died soon after the bombing.  Richard Jewell died in 2007 of heart disease, kidney disease and complications of diabetes. Cleere (b. 1936) died of complications of Alzheimers on January 26, 2018. Scruggs died in 2001. Richard’s mother, Bryant and his wife attended the world premiere at AFI Fest and were introduced to the audience.

With Bryant and other attorneys such as L. Lin Wood, Richard Jewell sued Piedmont College, NBC, the New York Post, Cox Enterprises (d.b.a. Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and CNN. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the only entity that didn’t settle out of court and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled “because the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published—even though the investigators’ suspicions were ultimately deemed unfounded—they cannot form the basis of a defamation action.” The case was settled after the death of both Richard Jewell (August 29, 2007) and Scruggs (2001 at 42).

Richard Jewell’s plight might remind you of other more recent cases like Nicholas Sandmann’s defamation suit against the Washington Post.  Sandmann’s attorney is L. Lin Wood: Richard Jewell was Wood’s first libel and defamation client. Up until 1996, Wood litigated personal injury and medical malpractice cases but since then he has taken other high profile defamation cases.

As director, Eastwood adds “Richard Jewell” to his growing body of work that focuses on ordinary men becoming heroes: “American Sniper,” “Sully,” “The 15:17 to Paris,” “The Mule.” Except for “The 15:17 to Paris,” these are all about white men.  I haven’t seen the last two so I can’t determine how women fare in those movies nor if the portrayals required villains.

Eastwood extracts beautiful performances from his cast. Hauser’s Jewell is a man desperate for approval, hoping for inclusion and blind to how he sabotages his opportunities and potentially helps his enemies. He believes in law enforcement as a force for good. Rockwell’s Bryant becomes an exasperated fatherly figure, whose professional practice is actually saved by Jewell. Bates shines as a woman who is the constant cheerleader for her son, glowing with pride when he is a hero and then a comforting though fearful protector when he falls from grace.

The movie provides a comfy sense of neat reality–more orderly and aesthetically pleasing than messy real life, but so close that it is still believable and fits in nicely with archival footage from the real Olympics and its musical celebrations. This underlines a feeling of sincerity, honesty and truth.

Although “Richard Jewell” points out the importance of sensitivity and caution for both the FBI and the media, and the potential of either or both misusing their powers, these issues are muddied by the portrayal of Scruggs as a woman always ready to trade on her good looks and even have sex in order to get her story. That seems both sexist and, ironically, a defamation of character with Scruggs being the target since Tom Shaw is a fictional character. “Richard Jewell” is weakened by this and doesn’t compare well with the Netflix miniseries “Unbelievable” that was discussed on Monday morning as having no villains, but just people who made mistakes. One wonders if Scruggs reflected on her story and its wide-ranging affects on people and her industry. How the story, although true, fueled the defamation of one man’s character and ruined his life is worth reflecting upon in a world now inundated by social media and its trial-by-public-opinion proclivities.

“Richard Jewell” would make a perfect double bill with the documentary “Scandalous.” Both movies, along with “All the President’s Men” and “Citizen Kane” should be required viewing for future journalists and perhaps even everyone because in this social media age, we all have the potential to become citizen journalists. The press certainly has power and power can be abused and yet movies have power as well and when fact-versus-fiction, one also has to question the abuse of power in movie makers. As a critique of the FBI and new media, “Richard Jewell” undercuts its message by stooping to defamation of a real person and this time, unlike the titular character, this person isn’t around to defend herself, making the characterization seem cowardly. Given the official legal outcome, this tact is questionable and perhaps sabotages the possibility for real conversations and heartfelt discussion about the power of the press and the potential abuse there of. Yes, there are vultures amongst the press, ready to pick at the flesh of the helpless, but here, the film does no better

“Richard Jewell” made its world premiere at AFI Fest on Nov. 20, 2019. It will be released in the US on Dec. 13.

 

 

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