I knew this review was coming, I just wasn’t sure where it would appear first. Today the Daily Beast published a nakedly partisan review which barely spares a thought for its artistic merit or quality. What matters is that this film seems to make a point that could be seen as Trump friendly:
Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell wants to be a gripping, outrage-inciting drama about an innocent victim persecuted by—and driven to fight back against—institutional power. Unfortunately, what it turns out to be is a MAGA screed calibrated to court favor with the red hat-wearing faithful by vilifying the president’s two favorite enemies: the FBI and the media.
Eastwood’s cinema has always been anti-establishment. Yet that individualistic ethos has curdled in Richard Jewell (in theaters Dec. 13), a poisonous pro-Trump effort (based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article) that finds the director following in the footsteps of his Sully and The 15:17 to Paris by again recounting the tale of a seemingly ordinary American thrust into gallant duty, only to be unjustly attacked by “horrific forces.” The axis of evil here is FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), two figures who come after portly, unassuming Richard Jewell (I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser) because his discovery of pipe bombs at Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics puts him at the scene of the crime, and his schlubby wannabe-cop persona matches a “hero bomber” profile. Tyrannical bullying, threats and character assassination follow, with Jewell cast as a patriotic red-state everyman who, for his virtuous efforts, is monstrously mistreated…
That Richard Jewell doesn’t imagine make-believe adversaries for Jewell certainly lends it a measure of veracity lacking from its predecessor. Still, that hardly earns it any points, given that at every turn, it makes such a cartoonishly slanted case against the feds and the media that it plays as a politically motivated Trump Twitter rant masquerading as a David-vs.-Goliath thriller.
In the final paragraphs of the review, author Nick Schager does praise the “reasonably compelling lead turn” by Paul Walter Hauser. He also likes the cinematography and describes Eastwood’s direction as “typically sturdy.” But the bottom line is that he felt offended by the material and the implications of the material and that’s really what his review is about. I’ve felt similarly offended by a film to be honest. Remember Robert Redford as Dan Rather in “Truth.”
What’s most surprising to me is that Schager seems to be mostly alone in taking this approach. It’s currently at 89 percent approval from critics on Rotten Tomatoes with several reviewers praising Hauser’s work in particular. The Hollywood Reporter didn’t skip over Eastwood’s take on the media but also didn’t see it as a deal breaker in a largely positive review:
Most Hollywood films about journalism since All the President’s Men 43 years ago have taken the free press’ side, portraying it as a scruffy if noble institution essential to the well-being of democracy. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) here take a rather different view of the Fourth Estate, portraying it as reckless, corrupt and immoral.
I have no doubt that’s what the film portrays. When I wrote about this two months ago it was pretty clear where Eastwood was going with it. But the important point is that, in this case, Eastwood is right. Jewell really was a good guy who saved people’s lives and the FBI and the media really did get it wrong and turn him into a national villain. You don’t have to become a MAGA hat wearing Trump supporter to recognize that sometimes powerful institutions get it wrong and when they do the damage they cause can be tremendous.
The film opens in theaters next Friday. I think it looks good so I’ll be going to see this one.