The Just and the Unjust

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“Mob justice” isn’t justice at all.

If you remember the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, you remember Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered a backpack with a pipe bomb hidden inside it under a bench in Centennial Park. First lauded as a hero, Jewell was then accused in the press of having planted the bomb himself in order to garner public attention. He was never charged, and Eric Robert Rudolph later pled guilty to the crime. But Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story. It happened nearly 25 years ago, yet it’s as timely today as the most recent Internet shaming.

In Clint Eastwood’s excellent film about the case, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is not a likeable guy. Pushy, fat, and a little slow, he’s too “law-and-order,” toso much in other people’s business, for most people to want to befriend. He has gone through a series of second-rate jobs, from supply clerk to police department washout to campus security guard. Each time he goes too far in his zeal to do his job, and each time he gets fired. He still lives with his mother (Kathy Bates) in a small Tupperware-filled apartment, where a large photograph of him in his now-defunct police uniform is prominently displayed on the living room wall.

Yes, Jewell is socially awkward. That doesn’t make him guilty.

Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story.

But he “fits the profile,” and that’s all the press needs to skewer him. Newspaper journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is just as eager as Jewell to do her job well and garner the respect of her peers. Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!” Soon she is fucking lead FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in exchange for the name of a suspect. Scruggs accuses Jewell of destroying people's lives just for the publicity, and ironically, that’s exactly what she does to Jewell. Once her story hits the wires, Jewell’s life explodes like the bomb he is suspected of setting. Wilde plays Scruggs brilliantly, from self-assured seductress using her sex to get a story to elated reporter celebrating her front-page scoop to contrite whistleblower realizing that she has blown the wrong whistle.

A great deal stands out in this fine movie, from the acting to the pacing to the injustice of the story. Particularly appalling are the dirty tricks Shaw uses to sidestep Jewell’s Miranda rights and his decision to remain silent. Hamm, known for his role as advertising executive Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men, could not be better as a pleasantly manipulative bastard of an FBI agent. The interrogation reminds me of a former student I knew at Sing Sing — let’s call him JD — who was just 16 when he was nabbed by the police on his way to school and interrogated for more than ten hours about the murder of a classmate, without his mother’s knowledge or an attorney present. Why did they suspect him of the murder? Because some classmates, eager to share what they “knew” with the police, noted that JD was “socially awkward” and had been “really broken up” at the girl’s funeral. He was “the type” to do it, just as Jewell was “the type” to set a bomb just so he could enjoy the notoriety of discovering it.

In JD’s case, the cops lied to him, confused him, terrified him. They convinced him he was “not allowed” to see his mother or an attorney until he signed a confession. Then everything will be OK, they promised, shoving the confession toward him just as Shaw shoves the Miranda waiver toward Jewell. And on the strength of that signed confession, our JD was sentenced to life in prison. Sixteen years later, using DNA evidence that proved he did not commit the crime, the Innocence Project helped JD secure a release. But his life, like Richard Jewell’s, would never be the same. No one had believed in him when he was on the inside, not even his mother. He felt utterly alone.

Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!”

One person who does believe in Jewell is his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Bryant is a loose cannon who wears cargo shorts and short-sleeved shirts and doesn’t necessarily play well with others. A poster behind the desk in his office says, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” While his client is a superpatriot who believes in law and order, Bryant is a cautious American with a wise distrust of government. His girlfriend Nadya is a Soviet immigrant who wisecracks, “Where I come from, when the government says someone is guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent.” Rockwell is completely comfortable in Bryant’s skin. You’ll like him.

The other person who believes completely in Jewell is his mother. In the early days after the bombing, Bobi Jewell glows with bashful pride as she watches her son being interviewed on “the TV.” Her son — a hero! Bates is known for playing strong, quirky, independent women, but the timid, unassuming Bobi Jewell is perhaps her strongest role of all. She is wearing yellow dishwashing gloves when the FBI arrive at their door. An eager smile adorns her face as she anticipates why they are here — a smile that fades into confused despair when she realizes that they have come to interrogate their suspect, not to interview her hero.

This is an important film, not only because it tells Jewell’s story, but also because it reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I was surprised and pleased to see listed as producers of this film Leonardo diCaprio and Jonah Hill, who usually align with the radically liberal side of Hollywood rather than conservative directors such as Clint Eastwood. Perhaps some in Hollywood are finally getting it: there’s a reason many of us fear government — and the media — more than terrorism.

"Richard Jewell" reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I couldn’t help but compare this storyline to the one playing in the theater across the hall, Bombshell, another biopic about scandal in the newsroom. In Richard Jewell, when we first meet reporter Kathy Scruggs at the Atlanta Journal Constitution she is contemplating a boob job. “Another year and we’ll all be competing for TV,” she announces to her colleagues in the newsroom. “What do you think — D cups?” She then offers to trade sex for information from FBI agent Tom Shaw, and runs the story without corroborating it.

In Bombshell the gender roles are reversed, with the man propositioning the women in exchange for jobs and promotions. It deals with the accusations of sexual harassment brought first by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and then by Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) against Fox CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), charging that he had required sexual favors in exchange for promises of promotions within the company.

In the film version of this story, Kelly, who has been harassed ten years earlier, quietly seeks the corroboration of other women in order to demonstrate a pattern of misbehavior that would strengthen the case. Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), Ailes’ current victim, chastises Kelly for not reporting it ten years earlier, telling her, “This wouldn’t have happened to me if you had said something then.” This is plausible. But Kayla, too, has been keeping quiet about the liaisons. She really wants the job. Such is the nature of workplace harassment — a woman is victimized if she acquiesces, and often loses her job if she doesn’t.

When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!”

As shocked and appalled as Hollywood actors and insiders pretended to be when Harvey Weinstein was arrested on sexual harassment charges, the stories that launched the “MeToo” movement did not occur all of a sudden, nor did they occur entirely in secret. The “casting couch” stretches back to the earliest days of Hollywood. Agents and even stage mothers often trained their starry-eyed starlets to “do whatever the director tells you to do” and then walked out the door to pretend they didn’t know what “whatever” might entail. Similarly, when Kayla tries to tell her friend Jess (Kate McKinnon) what Ailes has done, Jess tells her, “It’s better if you don’t tell me.” She knows, but she doesn’t want to know. Like the acting agent, she closes the door, and her eyes, on her way out.

So it isn’t too surprising that the female Fox News journalists, with the exception of dowdy Greta Van Susteren (Anne Ramsey), accept the role of glamour girl that “director” Roger Ailes imposes on them, donning their short formfitting dresses, their inch-long eyelashes, and their wavy hair extensions to deliver the news. And if protecting their jobs requires protecting their boss, they’ll do that too. When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!” The ensuing scene juxtaposes newscasters fielding telephone calls from other journalists, frantically denying that they’re told what to wear on camera, with these same women pulling on body-smoothing Spanx, leg-lengthening high heels, and breast-plumping falsies. But no, “I’ve never been told I can’t wear pants,” says Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon) as she smooths her tight skirt.

The biggest problem with Bombshell is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart.

Bombshell is interesting in a prurient, voyeuristic way, but hardly as compelling or well made as Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. For one thing, the story is more recent and familiar; I didn’t feel that I learned anything new about the case. For another, the acting in Bombshell is more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter: Theron’s Megyn Kelly is hard and steely; Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is feminine and perky; Robbie’s Kayla is wide-eyed and frightened. There isn’t much depth or range to their characters.

The biggest problem with Bombshell, though, is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart. They all have the same hairstyles, the same makeup styles, the same body styles, and the same stiletto heels. Carlson addresses this sameness indirectly when she says bitterly, “You know why they dress soldiers alike? To remind them that they’re replaceable.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Richard Jewell," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 131 minutes; and "Bombshell," directed by Jay Roach. Denver & Delilah Productions, 2019, 109 minutes.



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Comments

Patrick T Peterson

I am really, really looking forward to seeing this movie soon now.

Loved your note about di Caprio as a producer. Hoping it will mean good things. Perhaps you can get him/Eastwood to Anthem Film Festival sometime?

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