Eastwood turns true story into a MAGA rally in 'Richard Jewell'

Brad Keefe
"Richard Jewell"

We live in an age of diverging “truths,” one where your political affiliations largely determine where you get your information and, thus, how you view events in the world around us.

There’s no way to responsibly review “Richard Jewell” and remain objective. Under different circumstances and a different “truth,” is it a decent movie with solid performances? Sure, maybe.

Clint Eastwood says he’s been wanting to tell the story of Jewell for “years,” but it’s transparent why he chose this one and, because of that, why this is one of the most problematic movies of 2019.

Jewell, portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”), was the security guard who discovered a pipe bomb in Centennial Park in the runup to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He became one of the FBI’s top suspects in the bombing and was the center of a media firestorm before eventually being cleared.

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Jewell is a good boy, loves his mama (Kathy Bates), loves Jesus, and shooting guns, too. He’s polite, eager to please and a relatable red-state everyman. He was unfairly accused, and the fact that he’s the hero of this movie is fair.

As clearly as Jewell is portrayed as a hero, the villains here are caricatures — so mustache-twirlingly obvious that the audience is essentially invited to boo and throw tomatoes each time they’re on screen.

And those villains just happen to be the media and the FBI. Again, this is the year Eastwood chose to tell that story. You can tell me that’s a coincidence, and you can also tell me the earth is flat.

And in a movie about a wrongfully accused man, the fictitious scenario around this is particularly ugly. Olivia Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, a brash reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When we meet her, she’s lamenting that she’s stuck covering a Kenny Rogers concert when something is “finally happening in this stupid town.”

She’s the antithesis of Jewell, and Eastwood might as well just come out and say she hates America. But he and screenwriter Billy Ray go beyond the pale when they portray Wilde’s character as using sex with a (fictionalized) FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to get the scoop that the FBI is looking at Jewell as a suspect.

You can already hear the cries of “Fake news!” coming from the audience, but the reporting was accurate. Jewell was a suspect. And that’s not how the real-life Scruggs got the story — not that she can defend this, as she’s since passed away.

There’s much to criticize about the sensationalism of news coverage at the time, but the takeaway Eastwood wants is simple: “Fake news” (boo!) and the FBI (hiss!) can maliciously ruin the life of an honest American.

Eastwood knows his MAGA base as well as I do. (After I gave a middling review to “American Sniper,” I was called “ISIS-lover” and “pajama boy” on social media.) But while he deems it necessary to ramp up the outrage at two of Donald Trump’s favorite targets, he does brush over one key detail in this story.

The actual bomber? He was a white Christian who carried out an act of terrorism on American soil in protest of abortion and the “homosexual agenda.” But that detail doesn’t fit Eastwood’s agenda, does it?

Make no mistake on my position. Richard Jewell was a hero and was unjustly put through hell, but he deserved better than this movie. And Kathy Scruggs sure as hell deserved better.

“Richard Jewell” is a competent piece of filmmaking, but it’s also an irresponsible and thinly veiled propaganda piece, and I’m not the least bit cool with that in 2019.

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0 stars out of 5

“Richard Jewell”