Why Mainstream Critics Are Panning Clint Eastwood's Latest Film

Not every mainstream movie critic hates Clint Eastwood's highly affecting Richard Jewell.  But the critics who hate it hate it an awful lot. 

The story of how an out-of-control FBI and a "completely irresponsible press" ruined the life of the heroic security guard whose quick action saved many lives during the 1996 Centennial Park bombing is legitimately viewed as Eastwood's take on what's happening in America right now.  The irony that the movie was released the same week as the I.G. report exposing the FBI's lawlessness in Crossfire Hurricane must be particularly galling for mainstream journos who staked their reputations on the Russia collusion hoax.

Just how timely Eastwood's morality tale about government abuse may turn out to be is proved in the abysmal disconnect of NPR reviewer Chris Klimek's question: "Why might he have chosen, at this perilous moment in our history, to make a movie that depicts not just the press but also the FBI as fundamentally corrupt and uninterested in the truth?"  Why, indeed.

The negative reviews of Jewell cite Olivia Wilde's portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the real-life Atlanta Journal-Constitution police-beat reporter who broke the story that the Feds were targeting Jewell.  In the movie, Scruggs trades sex for a tip from an FBI agent (played by Jon Hamm), who divulges that they suspect the good-old-boy security guard of planting the bomb just so he could play the hero by discovering it.  The film's detractors say the idea that Scruggs would trade sex for a scoop is unimaginable.  Katie Walsh at The Morning Call fumes that "[screenwriter Billy] Ray and Eastwood lean into the ugly stereotype that female journalists are drunken floozies who get their tips through sex."  Vox grumbles that the character was "written as an over-the-top bitch in heels."  

This isn't altogether fair.  The person Olivia Wilde greatly admired and tried to capture was, at minimum, flamboyant.  In a 2003 Atlanta Magazine requiem written two years after the reporter's death, former AJC colleague Doug Monroe recalled fondly how the "bigger-than-life" Scruggs "wore mini skirts and gaudy stockings ...  smoked ... drank ... [c]ursed ... flaunted her sexuality ... dated cops[.]"  Another Atlanta workmate, who hated Wilde's portrayal, also said Scruggs "knew the impression she made, and she used it when she hung out at police stations and made herself one of the guys — the pretty one — as she worked leads on crime stories."  Her writer friend Robert Coram used her as his model for reporter Kitty O'Hara in the novel Atlanta Heat; the cops in the book say of Kitty, "You can tell how badly she needs a story by how short her skirt is that day."  Scruggs thought that was hilarious.  Wilde's own intuition about what another woman, ambitious and brazenly using her looks to get what she wants from men, might do may not be as inconceivable as Scruggs's defenders insist.

Others charge that Eastwood made his picture too political.  Pittsburgh Magazine condemns the film outright as "nothing but the salty and hateful ranting of a bitter misanthrope."  David Edelstein says Eastwood "twisted the story to suit his ends."  Jewell is "so mired in conspiracy theories and boogeyman fantasies," carps Adam Graham at The Detroit News, that it's nothing but "an anti-authoritarian screed."  A WaPo critic admits that Eastwood's account of Jewell's tragedy is scary, but, "coming as it does in 2019, its vilification of reporters and the feds is even scarier."

On top of being anti-authoritarian (an even scarier thing, perhaps?), Graham thinks Jewell gets the nuts and bolts of journalism all wrong, a "tabloid fantasy gone unchecked, informed by the current administration's views of the industry as the 'enemy of the people,' [leading] this supposedly fact-based account into the realm of fantasy land."

This goes too far, especially considering that no one's seriously challenging that the main elements of the plot are faithful to what happened.  Besides, if political bias in a movie is a fault, why didn't Graham think so last December when he was reviewing the vitriolic attack on Dick Cheney — director Adam McKay's Vice  — whose clear bias the critic found a positive feature?  "There's no doubt," Graham wrote, that "'Vice' is biased politically.  McKay was never out to make a fair and balanced film.  Instead it's a story of power, and the way history unfolds slowly, often when no one is paying attention."  The thing is, Richard Jewell is also a story of power.  Sam Rockwell, playing Jewell's lawyer, says at one point his client's being accused by "two of the most powerful forces in the world: the United States government and the media."

The gripe that Jewell's reporters don't behave like real journalists is nitpicking for the sake of finding fault.  Dramatic productions have rarely been judged by how closely they stick to absolute vérité.  At any rate, this isn't a movie about how highly trained journalists report the news.  It's about how veteran reporters, chastity intact or not, did report a false tip that was ultimately never attributed to any source, that the hero of the Olympic bombing matched the FBI's profile of "the lone bomber."  The AJC's reckless headline, over Scruggs's and Ron Martz's byline, did boom, "FBI SUSPECTS 'HERO' GUARD' MAY HAVE PLANTED BOMB."  That article, stating bluntly that the profile "generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police 'wanna-be' who seeks to become a hero," was the lit match that burned down Jewell's life.  The New York Times later recounted how the AJC's editors, "proud of the staff's work, alerted The Associated Press and CNN.  These organizations alerted the world."  Within 24 hours, the AJC ran five more headlines suggesting Jewell's guilt, like, "Security Guard Had Reputation as Zealot," and "Motive? Could Be Sociopath, Attention Seeker."  Before long, Jewell's mother had to see her favorite newscaster, Tom Brokaw, telling the country "[t]hey probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him[.]"  Months later, CNN's Bill Press was still broadcasting lies, saying, "The guy was seen with a homemade bomb at his home a few days before."

Richard Jewell isn't a documentary on news-gathering procedure or a biography of Kathy Scruggs; it's not even a biography of Richard Jewell.  It's a parable of what happens when news organizations are willing to ditch their principles to become enablers of powerful people with police powers who've misplaced theirs, too.  Characters in parables are types, and in Eastwood's parable, Scruggs represents the AJC and the news business at large, who, in her ambition, engages in something sordid and shameful.  Whether or not a particular Atlanta police reporter had sex with some cop in exchange for information avoids the point.  We're living through a time when mainstream newsgatherers show up each day determined to avoid the point.  Richard Jewell succeeds in making it impossible not to see how the ruin of a heroic American's life was the fault of a reckless press and unethical lawmen coming together in something sordid, shameful, even whorish.

Watch the movie, and you'll want to wring the female reporter's neck.  But for three years, Americans have watched a growing mountain of evidence that crooked politicians and high government officials connived to destroy a president and undo an election — evidence all brought to light without any assistance from the fourth estate, and in many cases in spite of their active resistance.  So acute is the self-deception of journalists about their abandonment of standards, just so they can abet scoundrels like James Comey and Adam Schiff, they've hardened into what they're forever accusing unwoke America of being: impermeable to facts, evidence, or reason.  That's why a parable is called for.  Nathan told a parable to make King David grasp the enormity of his sins.  Jesus insisted on speaking to the Pharisees in parables.  They were enraged, too, when they figured out that His parables were "speaking about them."

Those critics hating on Richard Jewell say it's because of its bias, its inaccuracies, and for being an intentional "hit piece" against one of their own.  Maybe.  Or are they provoked at realizing it's "speaking about them"?  If so, then Eastwood succeeded.

T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan.  You can email him at trclancy@yahoo.com.

Not every mainstream movie critic hates Clint Eastwood's highly affecting Richard Jewell.  But the critics who hate it hate it an awful lot. 

The story of how an out-of-control FBI and a "completely irresponsible press" ruined the life of the heroic security guard whose quick action saved many lives during the 1996 Centennial Park bombing is legitimately viewed as Eastwood's take on what's happening in America right now.  The irony that the movie was released the same week as the I.G. report exposing the FBI's lawlessness in Crossfire Hurricane must be particularly galling for mainstream journos who staked their reputations on the Russia collusion hoax.

Just how timely Eastwood's morality tale about government abuse may turn out to be is proved in the abysmal disconnect of NPR reviewer Chris Klimek's question: "Why might he have chosen, at this perilous moment in our history, to make a movie that depicts not just the press but also the FBI as fundamentally corrupt and uninterested in the truth?"  Why, indeed.

The negative reviews of Jewell cite Olivia Wilde's portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the real-life Atlanta Journal-Constitution police-beat reporter who broke the story that the Feds were targeting Jewell.  In the movie, Scruggs trades sex for a tip from an FBI agent (played by Jon Hamm), who divulges that they suspect the good-old-boy security guard of planting the bomb just so he could play the hero by discovering it.  The film's detractors say the idea that Scruggs would trade sex for a scoop is unimaginable.  Katie Walsh at The Morning Call fumes that "[screenwriter Billy] Ray and Eastwood lean into the ugly stereotype that female journalists are drunken floozies who get their tips through sex."  Vox grumbles that the character was "written as an over-the-top bitch in heels."  

This isn't altogether fair.  The person Olivia Wilde greatly admired and tried to capture was, at minimum, flamboyant.  In a 2003 Atlanta Magazine requiem written two years after the reporter's death, former AJC colleague Doug Monroe recalled fondly how the "bigger-than-life" Scruggs "wore mini skirts and gaudy stockings ...  smoked ... drank ... [c]ursed ... flaunted her sexuality ... dated cops[.]"  Another Atlanta workmate, who hated Wilde's portrayal, also said Scruggs "knew the impression she made, and she used it when she hung out at police stations and made herself one of the guys — the pretty one — as she worked leads on crime stories."  Her writer friend Robert Coram used her as his model for reporter Kitty O'Hara in the novel Atlanta Heat; the cops in the book say of Kitty, "You can tell how badly she needs a story by how short her skirt is that day."  Scruggs thought that was hilarious.  Wilde's own intuition about what another woman, ambitious and brazenly using her looks to get what she wants from men, might do may not be as inconceivable as Scruggs's defenders insist.

Others charge that Eastwood made his picture too political.  Pittsburgh Magazine condemns the film outright as "nothing but the salty and hateful ranting of a bitter misanthrope."  David Edelstein says Eastwood "twisted the story to suit his ends."  Jewell is "so mired in conspiracy theories and boogeyman fantasies," carps Adam Graham at The Detroit News, that it's nothing but "an anti-authoritarian screed."  A WaPo critic admits that Eastwood's account of Jewell's tragedy is scary, but, "coming as it does in 2019, its vilification of reporters and the feds is even scarier."

On top of being anti-authoritarian (an even scarier thing, perhaps?), Graham thinks Jewell gets the nuts and bolts of journalism all wrong, a "tabloid fantasy gone unchecked, informed by the current administration's views of the industry as the 'enemy of the people,' [leading] this supposedly fact-based account into the realm of fantasy land."

This goes too far, especially considering that no one's seriously challenging that the main elements of the plot are faithful to what happened.  Besides, if political bias in a movie is a fault, why didn't Graham think so last December when he was reviewing the vitriolic attack on Dick Cheney — director Adam McKay's Vice  — whose clear bias the critic found a positive feature?  "There's no doubt," Graham wrote, that "'Vice' is biased politically.  McKay was never out to make a fair and balanced film.  Instead it's a story of power, and the way history unfolds slowly, often when no one is paying attention."  The thing is, Richard Jewell is also a story of power.  Sam Rockwell, playing Jewell's lawyer, says at one point his client's being accused by "two of the most powerful forces in the world: the United States government and the media."

The gripe that Jewell's reporters don't behave like real journalists is nitpicking for the sake of finding fault.  Dramatic productions have rarely been judged by how closely they stick to absolute vérité.  At any rate, this isn't a movie about how highly trained journalists report the news.  It's about how veteran reporters, chastity intact or not, did report a false tip that was ultimately never attributed to any source, that the hero of the Olympic bombing matched the FBI's profile of "the lone bomber."  The AJC's reckless headline, over Scruggs's and Ron Martz's byline, did boom, "FBI SUSPECTS 'HERO' GUARD' MAY HAVE PLANTED BOMB."  That article, stating bluntly that the profile "generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police 'wanna-be' who seeks to become a hero," was the lit match that burned down Jewell's life.  The New York Times later recounted how the AJC's editors, "proud of the staff's work, alerted The Associated Press and CNN.  These organizations alerted the world."  Within 24 hours, the AJC ran five more headlines suggesting Jewell's guilt, like, "Security Guard Had Reputation as Zealot," and "Motive? Could Be Sociopath, Attention Seeker."  Before long, Jewell's mother had to see her favorite newscaster, Tom Brokaw, telling the country "[t]hey probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him[.]"  Months later, CNN's Bill Press was still broadcasting lies, saying, "The guy was seen with a homemade bomb at his home a few days before."

Richard Jewell isn't a documentary on news-gathering procedure or a biography of Kathy Scruggs; it's not even a biography of Richard Jewell.  It's a parable of what happens when news organizations are willing to ditch their principles to become enablers of powerful people with police powers who've misplaced theirs, too.  Characters in parables are types, and in Eastwood's parable, Scruggs represents the AJC and the news business at large, who, in her ambition, engages in something sordid and shameful.  Whether or not a particular Atlanta police reporter had sex with some cop in exchange for information avoids the point.  We're living through a time when mainstream newsgatherers show up each day determined to avoid the point.  Richard Jewell succeeds in making it impossible not to see how the ruin of a heroic American's life was the fault of a reckless press and unethical lawmen coming together in something sordid, shameful, even whorish.

Watch the movie, and you'll want to wring the female reporter's neck.  But for three years, Americans have watched a growing mountain of evidence that crooked politicians and high government officials connived to destroy a president and undo an election — evidence all brought to light without any assistance from the fourth estate, and in many cases in spite of their active resistance.  So acute is the self-deception of journalists about their abandonment of standards, just so they can abet scoundrels like James Comey and Adam Schiff, they've hardened into what they're forever accusing unwoke America of being: impermeable to facts, evidence, or reason.  That's why a parable is called for.  Nathan told a parable to make King David grasp the enormity of his sins.  Jesus insisted on speaking to the Pharisees in parables.  They were enraged, too, when they figured out that His parables were "speaking about them."

Those critics hating on Richard Jewell say it's because of its bias, its inaccuracies, and for being an intentional "hit piece" against one of their own.  Maybe.  Or are they provoked at realizing it's "speaking about them"?  If so, then Eastwood succeeded.

T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan.  You can email him at trclancy@yahoo.com.