Political Film Review #606


On almost the very day when the Inspector General of the Department of Justice filed a report containing criticisms of FBI officials, Richard Jewell was released to provide vivid evidence of the same. In 1996, security guard Jewell (played by Paul Walter Hauser) spots a possible bomb at Centennial Park on the eve of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He alerts police, who find that he is right and then he joins them in escorting to safety hundreds of persons attending a musical event in the park. Two die and 111 are injured, and he is soon praised in the media for his heroism. But then the story gets dark.

In the first scenes of Richard Jewell, the biopic identifies him as a conscientious, unpretentious 33-year-old seeking a career in law enforcement while living with his loving mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) in a modest apartment. Starting his employment as an office aide, he meets his future lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), and two bind together briefly at a local video game parlor and shooting range. Hired as a security guard at a local college, the dean fires him because he exceeds his authority in trying to root out legal infractions of students. Next, he is a security guard at Centennial Park, where he confronts teenagers drinking; when they are chased away, he spots a suspicious package and informs police. But the bomb goes off one minute after an unidentified person makes a 911 call from a distant public telephone to inform authorities of the bomb.

But the question for law enforcement is “Who planted the bomb?” While the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agency hunts for forensic evidence, which will take awhile to investigate, the FBI urgently looks for suspects to prevent another bomb incident. As in murder cases, their initial suspect is the one who reports the crime—Richard Jewell. A pattern emerges from Jewell’s profile that appears to correspond with similar bombers, reinforced by the dean’s account of his work history. When a reporter entices the head FBI officer in Atlanta to reveal what is ongoing, she scores a scoop that Jewell is the prime suspect. Now the media hound Jewell, who is vigorously interrogated until he calls upon Bryant, his old friend. Soon, many items are seized from his apartment by a warrant seeking forensic evidence. Most of the film now deals with his harassment by the FBI and media, as his mother’s hair changes from blonde to gray. Yet Jewell is mostly unflappable, fending off the persecution for 88 days, even eloquently calling out the FBI for not focusing on the actual bomber, until he is finally exonerated. His later death at the age of 44 appears in the credits, reminding filmviewers of a scene when he grips his heart while the horror is taking its toll, though his overweight condition is a more obvious clue to his fatal diabetes problem.

Although film critics might link director Clint Eastwood with the origin of the story to his sympathy with Donald Trump’s attack on the FBI and the media, the Political Film Society has nominated Richard Jewell as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2019. After all, Eastwood’s Sully (2016) and this year’s Brian Banks had similar plots! MH