America Never Knew What to Do With Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood’s drama about the Atlanta Olympics security guard is a stinging reminder of how this country embraces and then tears down its everyday heroes

It seems pretty likely that Richard Jewell would have been thrilled to be the subject of a Clint Eastwood movie. In “American Nightmare,” the 1997 Vanity Fair profile that was one of the chief inspirations for Richard Jewell, it’s noted that the security guard, who died in 2007 at the age of 44, was a big John Wayne fan, fond of one of the actor’s signature quotes: “Life is tough. Tougher when you’re stupid.” A law-and-order guy, he dug films like Backdraft, so it doesn’t feel like a stretch to imagine Jewell appreciating Eastwood’s style of no-nonsense heroism. After all, Jewell saw himself the same way.

Richard Jewell is a flawed film that, nonetheless, tells a captivating story: In the summer of 1996, Jewell worked in security at the Atlanta Summer Games, saving countless lives when he discovered a bomb left in Centennial Olympic Park, helping evacuate the area before it exploded. Hailed as a local hero, Jewell became an overnight national figure — until the FBI started suspecting him for the crime. Quickly, his life devolved into a nightmare, hounded by the press and convicted by the public. Jewell was eventually exonerated, but the stain of the accusations stayed with him. As just an anecdotal piece of evidence, when I told a friend in her 40s that I was seeing Richard Jewell, she asked me, “Is he still in jail?”

Eastwood’s movies are regularly fronted by proud, solitary men standing up for what’s right — even if they’re misunderstood by society. From Dirty Harry to Unforgiven to this decade’s collection of real-life portraits (American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, The Mule), either as a star or as a director (or both), the 89-year-old has celebrated the mythic qualities of brave individuals out of step with their countrymen. (Even when it’s an antihero, like Unforgiven’s Bill Munny, the protagonist may be a bad man, but he’s on a path to redemption.) Richard Jewell is very much in keeping with Eastwood’s approach but also strikingly different. His main characters are frequently noble, decent, with a whiff of the iconic to them. But as portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser, Jewell is a good guy who’s also a deluded fool and a bit of a simpleton who was torn down by the same media apparatus that built him up. In short, he’s the perfect American hero for our modern age.

In Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece, written after Jewell had been cleared of any suspicion, she observes, “From the beginning, Jewell was perceived in the public imagination as a hapless dummy, a plodding misfit, a Forrest Gump.” That’s the Jewell we see in Eastwood’s film, which depicts him as a guy who always had an inflated sense of his own self-importance. When he works security at a local college, he goes beyond the scope of his authority to give out citations. When he helps out at the 1996 Summer Olympics, he’s bossy and persnickety, as if he’s running the entire operation. And even when he becomes a target of the FBI, led by Jon Hamm’s agent Tom Shaw, Jewell is so concerned with making the Feds think that he’s one of them that he assists in their investigation. After all, Jewell considers himself a veteran in law enforcement — as far as he’s concerned, he and Shaw are colleagues — and so he unwittingly helps them build a case against him. Of course, Shaw and his buddies view Jewell as nothing more than an overweight, clueless dolt — the sooner they can prove he did it, the sooner they can move on.

Normally, Eastwood makes it obvious that his heroes are heroes. Often, they’re put on a pedestal, shown in a flattering light — especially in comparison to those around the hero. For once, though, the filmmaker doesn’t really do that. The movie is called Richard Jewell, but it’s as much about Richard Jewell as it is the circus that grew around him after the bombing. (If anything, Jewell’s feisty lawyer, played by Sam Rockwell, is the more dynamic of the two characters.) As a result, Eastwood treats Jewell much the same way the public and the media did — as a symbol and a quirky curiosity. Still, the director has some strong feelings about what we do to heroes in this country. In the movie, Richard Jewell epitomizes all the qualities that we celebrate in our underdogs — until we decide we’re ready for the pitchforks.

The early stretches of Richard Jewell paint Jewell as a bit of a sad sack, doting on his unsophisticated mom Bobi (Kathy Bates) and suffering from low self-esteem. (It’s fairly obvious that Jewell took his security work so seriously because it was the only place where he could pretend to be an authority figure.) Hauser, who played white-trash creeps in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman, never shies away from the depiction of Jewell we saw in Brenner’s article. If Jewell hadn’t gone through such an ordeal — first the bombing, then the suspicion — he would have, quite honestly, been the sort of random anonymous person most would have never thought about. There’s a tragedy to his brush with fame: He always wanted to be recognized for his great police work, but his moment in the sun ended up traumatizing him.

Richard Jewell illustrates how quick the world was to embrace him after the bombing. Being on national talk shows and courted with lucrative deals to write his memoirs, Jewell finally gets the thing he’s always craved — respect — and Hauser makes his hunger for that recognition heartbreaking. While watching the movie, I thought about all those viral videos that now litter social media: the cute kid who said that cute thing, the stranger who did something nice for someone, the inspirational message that restores your faith in humanity. What draws us to these videos is that the people are ordinary — they’re not celebrities — and so their commonness is ennobling. It also provokes a patronizing response in the viewer: If this rando can be a good person, maybe everyone can

Jewell’s story was similar: His unlikeliness for the role of bombing hero was part of what made it so captivating to the public. But as Richard Jewell suggests, he’s not bright enough to realize that he’s just being used for a fleeting feel-good story. He actually thinks he’s finally been anointed as the hero he always longed to be.

It’s been almost 25 years since the Atlanta bombing, but Americans still have a tendency to exalt folk heroes. One week, we all want to know who Left Shark is. Then, we move on, reducing the person to an odd cultural footnote. These objects of our affection are hungrily consumed for a few minutes in order to make us feel better — that Sully Sullenberger, he’s what makes America the best country in the world — and then we never give them another thought. But maybe that’s the better fate — what’s worse is when we turn on them.

Much of Richard Jewell focuses on Jewell being persecuted by the FBI and also in the press — specifically, by Olivia Wilde’s Kathy Scruggs, an actual Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist (who died in 2001) whom the movie portrays as a coldblooded schemer who slept with sources to get scoops, a depiction that has angered many of her colleagues. (I’ll get into that down below.) These outside forces are Richard Jewell’s bad guys, but in a sense, Eastwood is also indicting the audience and our penchant for demonizing those who reside outside our ridiculously narrow definitions of beauty and class. What makes Jewell initially heroic — his abundant averageness — is what will make him a villain in the public’s mind. 

In fact, it’s one of the reasons in Richard Jewell that Shaw targets him: Jewell fits the profile of a frustrated nobody who wants to bring attention to himself by doing something dramatic. Just like we can’t believe that handsome people can be serial killers, we immediately suspect that those less physically attractive are surely capable of heinous crimes. (I always think about how people weren’t surprised that Harvey Weinstein could be a monster simply because he wasn’t good-looking enough.)

In addition to Eastwood’s problematic handling of Scruggs, he remains a limited filmmaker at this stage of his career, telling self-pitying, unsubtle stories about wronged men. But in the case of Richard Jewell, the surety of Eastwood’s anger is warranted. People often lament that the world needs more heroes. Jewell, though beset with his own problems, acted bravely in a harrowing moment. He’s the sort of hero America ought to champion. Yet as the movie argues, there’s something deeply rotten about our attitude concerning everyday heroes: As soon as we get one, we’ll do everything in our power to destroy him.

Here are three other takeaways from Richard Jewell

#1. Finally, “Macarena” shows up in a Clint Eastwood movie.

Early in Richard Jewell, Olympic attendees hang out in Centennial Park, dancing along to songs that were popular during the era. And that means we get to see a huge group of extras dancing to “Macarena.” It’s a surreal sight in a Clint Eastwood picture.

First, let’s clear up something: The song is not called “The Macarena.” It’s just “Macarena.” (The dance is called “The Macarena.”) Second, if you’re too young to remember when the song was actually on the charts, it’s impossible to explain just how ubiquitous that hit was in the mid-1990s. It was all over radio. It was all over television. Eventually, it became a wedding staple. Everybody knows the song. (My mom has wowed me with her ability to do the dance perfectly.) But the original version, written in early 1992 by Rafael Ruiz Perdigones and Antonio Romero Monge (better known as Los Del Río), failed to be a global sensation: 

It wasn’t until the Bayside Boys crafted a remix, emphasizing danceable grooves, that the song really took off. Never mind the original Spanish lyrics were about a girl who cheats on her man while he’s off in the military: A musical novelty was born.

The use of a fluffy one-hit wonder in a stark Clint Eastwood drama might seem odd, but it works in two ways. The first is that the revelers’ love of “Macarena” feels very much in keeping with a more innocent time in America — long before 9/11 — when the country had yet to face a cataclysmic national tragedy. (That’s all a matter of perspective, though: The Atlanta bombing did take place about a year after Oklahoma City.) That innocence was about to be shattered right there at the Olympics.

The second is that, much like “Macarena,” Jewell’s story now feels like a time capsule of a particular age. I imagine many people have forgotten both — it’s all just cultural detritus at this point. That’s what makes the song’s inclusion so pointed. Some elements of the 1990s are probably worth forgetting — others, not so much.

#2. This Kathy Scruggs controversy really pisses me off.

One of the toughest parts of reviewing a movie on deadline is that you don’t have infinite time (and infinite resources) to fact-check everything in the film. So when I saw Richard Jewell last month, I mentioned that Olivia Wilde’s character, Kathy Scruggs, seemed like an ambitious, calculating journalist who happily oversteps ethical bounds to get her story. Perhaps naively, I assumed the portrayal was based, at least partly, in fact.

Only later did her old paper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution leap to Scruggs’ defense, insisting that she was a tough but principled journalist. In recent days, the newspaper has gone further, serving Warner Bros, which is putting out Richard Jewell, with a defamation lawsuit. The studio pushed back, saying in a statement: “It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast. Richard Jewell focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.” And, indeed, Scruggs did face criticism (along with her paper) for her treatment of Jewell at the time. As the AJC piece notes, the newspaper (as well as others) was sued by Jewell after he was exonerated — although the AJC was the only one that refused to settle.

The paper finally won the dispute — in 2011, the case was dismissed, with the Georgia Court of Appeals noting, “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published” — but Scruggs had been dead for 10 years by that point. In her obituary, AJC publisher Roger Kintzel said, “Through all of the examination in this litigation, nothing was ever found that indicated that what Kathy wrote was not the truth. She died knowing that what she wrote was accurate, and I think that was really important to her. She felt confident that that would be proven in court.”

For her part, Wilde doesn’t think her portrayal of Scruggs demonizes her. “It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious sexlessness,” she said recently. “It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists. There’s a complexity to Kathy, as there is to all of us, and I really admired her.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that. There’s very little dimensionality to Scruggs — she’s basically a reporter who trades sex for stories — and Richard Jewell paints her as one of the film’s clear villains. It’s fine to assert that Jewell was badly treated by the media after it came out that the FBI considered him a suspect. But to portray her in this way is cheap and cruel. It feels like score-settling — and it’s unnecessary. Ultimately, I come down on Richard Jewell about where fellow film critic Scott Tobias does:

Sadly, I suspect viewers who share Eastwood’s conservative bent won’t much care. Any chance to vilify the “lame-stream” media, they’ll do, happily.

#3. Here’s my favorite moment of the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Obviously, the 1996 games will always be synonymous with that deadly bombing. But there were also triumphant moments — like when Muhammad Ali lit the torch during the Opening Ceremony: 

At the time, Ali had Parkinson’s, and so, this was hardly an easy ceremonial task for the former world-champion. In fact, NBC almost considered going with another, younger fighter, Evander Holyfield, instead. But Dick Ebersol, an exec at the network, refused. “Muhammad Ali may be, outside of perhaps the Pope, the most beloved figure in the world,” Ebersol said later. “In the third world, he’s a hero. In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and fellow traveler. To anybody young — just about — in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison [for his opposition to the Vietnam War].”

Even then, though, disaster was just barely averted when Ali went about his task in front of a live global audience: 

“He keeps holding the thing there,” Ebersol said, “hoping that it will get lit. You can see flames licking back against his forearms. He didn’t exhibit any pain, but I kept waiting for him to drop his torch because it just looked like it was impossible with the flames licking back the way they were.

“Finally, just enough propellant burns off and the little rocket starts to go in little bits. Most people don’t remember it because after that all you saw was an edited version of this that I would show during the rest of the Olympics. Finally, after about 15 seconds of starts and stops, it took off and went up and lit the cauldron.”

The frailty only made it more inspiring. The most fearsome athlete in the world was, for once, human, and it created an indelible moment. When Ali died in 2016 at the age of 74, those Olympics immediately came to mind. Richard Jewell was one of that Games’ unlikely heroes. In his own way, so was Ali.