Review: Richard Jewell

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, December 13th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are glad you are! 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The new film Richard Jewell.

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie details the travesty of justice that Jewell endured after the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. It’s raising a lot of ire in some circles. For that reason, and because it’s extremely well done, it’s worth talking about, even though it’s rated R for heavy language and brief, realistic violence.

There’s a moment early in the film, when a perfectly pressed, iron-jawed FBI agent looks around at a mass of doughy Southerners gleefully doing the macarena. “I’m made for better things than this,” he grouses in disgust. A beautiful, young reporter stands next to him at the same Atlanta park during the 1996 Olympics trying to scrape up a story. She shoots back, “You think I’m not?”

It’s a scene ironically echoed later by Richard himself. Leaving to work security at that event, the wannabe cop tells his mother the world owes them more from life. “Maybe it does,” she replies, “but this is what we’ve got. Now go to work.” So Richard does, diligently.

CLIP: Well it ain’t theirs Richard. I don’t like this. We got ourselves a suspicious package. We better call it in. It’s probably just somebody run off drunk and forgot their backpack. I still think we have to call it in. Just take it to the lost and found Richard. Shouldn’t we unzip it and see what’s inside first? No, no, you don’t want to touch that. You got to follow protocol. 

The true story of how the hero of the Olympic Park bombing came to be falsely cast as its villain offers searing indictments of unethical media and governmental abuse of power. But behind this, we mostly see the wages of our sinful tendency to strive for superiority.

Wanting to believe we could be, should be doing something better is a common failing of mankind. But how quickly we slide into corruption when we believe our good looks, intellect, or professional achievements entitle us to the submission of those we view as our lessers.

It’s all too easy for both the FBI agent (played by Jon Hamm) and the reporter (played by Olivia Wilde) to assume the worst of Richard. He’s lower-class, overweight, socially awkward. Even worse, he’s the kind of guy who questions whether the NRA is a fringe group. They view him not as a human being but as a type, a stepping stone to those better things they were made for.

Because of this, they cut corners and miss obvious evidence. And they ruin an innocent man’s life in the process.

CLIP: Time? Six minutes. OK we know the second 911 call was placed at 12:58 on a payphone that was right here. We also know that Richard was inside the park near the light tower at 12:57. When Bill Miller called the backpack in he would have had to cover the distance in one minute. He really didn’t do this. This kid’s getting railroaded. We’re going to help this guy. 

Richard, on the other hand, for all his excessive enthusiasm, is faithful in his work. The only thing he’s guilty of is being so passionate about it and its tangential relationship to law enforcement, he doesn’t know when to stop. He even offers to help the FBI in their search for evidence to charge him.

CLIP: They took all my Tupperware. What would they need with my Tupperware? The bomber used the Tupperware to hold the nails. That’s standard. Well, what does that have to do with you? And they took my babysitting tapes. My Disney movies. Yeah I think they did that because they wanted to see if we might’ve recorded something on the tapes like a political statement or something. Why do you keep defending these people? I’m not defending them, I’m just explaining. Well stop it. 

Eastwood’s film has prompted angry media reactions for offering a largely accurate portrayal of the injustice perpetrated against Richard Jewell. That’s telling. The movie’s focus stays tightly on the year 1996. It never even alludes to anything relating to current politics. Snide comments about a throwaway bit of dialogue using the phrase “quid pro quo” are ridiculous. Lawyers used that phrase long before the current impeachment saga. And even Eastwood doesn’t make movies that fast.

If there are parallels to today—and there are—that’s not Eastwood’s fault. It’s the fault of the media and the officials creating the parallels.

Eastwood uses real footage of newsman Tom Brokaw blithely asserting the Feds probably have the goods on the accused bomber. Faced with such glaring bias from such a big megaphone, where does an average guy like Richard turn to get his reputation back? 

CLIP: My son is innocent. Richard is not the Olympic Park bomber. He saved people’s lives. Please hear me, Mr. President and help me. My son is a hero. If they do not intend to charge my son, please tell us. Please tell the world. Mr. President, please clear my son’s name. 

The Daily Beast calls Richard Jewell a “MAGA screed calibrated to court favor with the red hat-wearing faithful.” The Washington Post deems its “vilification of reporters and the feds [scary].” Their reactions smack of defensiveness and entirely miss the cautionary lesson Richard Jewell offers.

Vilification is warranted when those in power are motivated by prejudice. It’s warranted when arrogance prompts the media and the government to barrel ahead even when their mistakes are staring them in the face.

In 1996, government officials and journalists said, how dare you question us, the smart people, the ones made for better things than the masses.

As the reaction to Eastwood’s latest work shows, they’re still saying it too often today.

(Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Jon Hamm, left, and Paul Walter Hauser in a scene from “Richard Jewell.” 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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