I don’t often like to admit it but I was wrong. I had no faith in the Academy to give Bong Joon Ho and his basically flawless film the recognition they deserve. But, at the 2020 Oscars, Parasite became the biggest success of the night. It genuinely couldn’t happen to a nicer person. 1917 is a technically brilliant film but, in terms of narrative, it doesn’t exactly break new ground. Parasite did everything and it did it well. It brought together so many ideas and genres without ever getting overwhelmed. Bon Joon Ho is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time and I’m chuffed the Academy actually saw it too. But let’s not look back too long. After my massive Oscars week viewing, I am now a few weeks ahead with the films I need to review. I thought about doing them this week just to get them out of the way but, honestly, I need a break. So, get ready for my next few Tuesday posts to be a little behind the times.
Damn Clint Eastwood, back at it again with a film about a normal person who becomes a hero before their world turns to shit. It’s become a big part of his filmmaking in the last few years. The latest real American hero to join his previous studies is Richard Jewell, the security guard who helped prevent a bunch of people dying in a bomb blast. Then he was vilified in the press and branded the chief suspect in the bombing. Why? Because he was a 33-year-old man who still lived with his mother. This is an uncomfortable film to watch for many reasons but that one really did hit home. It’s highly unlikely but I’d better prepare myself for the fallout if I ever stumble across a bomb in time to save people.
Of course, Richard Jewell fit the profile in more ways than just living with his mother. He was obsessed with law enforcement procedures and doing things by the book. Jewell worked as a security guard in Centennial Park, Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic games. One evening, Jewell found a backpack containing a pipe bomb. His quick thinking and keen eye meant he was able to get people far enough away to really limit the fatalities. We now know that the bomb was planted by Eric Rudolph, an extreme-right terrorist. Although, at the time the FBI was at a loss to find someone to blame. They decided that his living arrangements, lack of social life and desire to be a police officer were all evidence that he planted the bomb in an attempt to become a hero.
This was leaked to the press and Jewell’s reputation was destroyed. The press and the FBI were doing everything they could to prove that he was the reason so many people got hurt. Unfortunately, as Jewell had such deep-seated respect for authority figures, he blindly went along with their investigations and made things much worse. Luckily, Jewell was surrounded by people who understood their tactics better than he did. Lawyer Watson Bryant takes the case and teaches Richard how to stand up for himself. Bryant is the small-fry lawyer who likes Jewell enough to take on “the man” and win.
Clint Eastwood is a careful and considered director. He never takes any major chances and he remains at a pretty safe distance the whole time. It’s not the most exciting film you’ll ever see but it gets the job done. There’s no bells and whistles here but there is a desire to show the injustice that this man suffers. Eastwood and co. are out to right an obvious wrong. They are making a point about the media and how much of an impact it has on society. It’s an incredibly timely film even if the approach isn’t at all subtle. Eastwood isn’t giving anyone the chance to form any other opinion but his here. Jewell is the everyman American hero who is utterly destroyed by the Establishment. It bashes you over the head with sentimental nature of the plot and portrays the man as one-dimensional villains.
A lot has already been said about the film’s portrayal of real-life journalist Kathy Scruggs. Plated by Olivia Wilde, the journalist who broke the story is portrayed as the kind of woman who would do anything to get the story, including sleep with FBI agents to find out about their investigation. The people behind the film have hit back at complaints about this portrayal. The people complaining, they tell us, are reducing the character to one scene but that’s a weak argument. Olivia Wilde stomps through every single scene with the whiff of alcohol and an air of unprofessionalism. What’s worse is that the actor turned to feminism as an excuse for the film’s reimagining of Scruggs. Wilde demanded to know why people were not so incensed about the FBI agent, played by Jon Hamm. Ignoring the fact that Hamm isn’t playing a real character but a composite.
It’s difficult to bring together a film that, through Richard’s mother, presents a sensitive and loving portrayal of what it is to be a woman and a film that is so eager to slander a dead journalist by presenting her as a sex-obsessed, drunk who doesn’t care about anything but a by-line. Yes, Scruggs has her moment of regret and sheds a tear later on, but you can’t help but feel that Eastwood is trying to get justice for Jewell by subjecting Scruggs to the same treatment she gave him. Wilde might like to convince herself that this is a step in the right direction for feminism but, if you ask me, the image of a female journalist using her sexuality to get ahead is taking us way way back.
Thankfully, Scruggs isn’t a huge part of the film, so it doesn’t completely taint it. The film is an overly simplified reworking of a real-life story that fits perfectly well into a tried and tested narrative structure. It’s a captivating story but Eastwood’s treatment of it isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. What does help this film is the lead performances. Sam Rockwell is standard Sam Rockwell. It’s always a pleasure to watch him and his friendship with Jewell is sweet. Kathy Bates is sensational and vulnerable as Richard’s mother. She has some fantastic moments and brings a quiet strength to her role. But this film sits on the shoulders of Paul Walter Hauser. Hauser brings such nuance to Richard. You see the naivety and goodness that lies at the heart of him yet you are frustrated and annoyed by him. You like him but you think he’s kind of stupid. He helps in his own downfall because he is so unflinching. Hauser was the perfect choice for this role and the film only resonates so much because of him.