This really happened. Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair magazine article, American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell, this fact based story is about how the media and the FBI tried to convict an innocent man of a crime he never committed because they needed a scapegoat.
Ten years before the tragic events of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was just a schlubby, over-weight, file clerk with delusions of grandeur of being a real policeman someday. His only friend at work is hot-shot attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) who treats him like a human, not a joke. Fast-forward ten years and Richard, having been kicked out of a campus cop position, gets a dream job as a special Olympic security officer in his state as the Olympics roll into town. His over-protective and loving mother (Kathy Bates) has the highest hopes for her boy, but all things changed on July 27, 1996 at Centennial Park.
Richard, being the ever-mindful over-achiever nudge that he always is, finds a suspicious knapsack one night and calls it in. As the police and bomb squad clear the area, the bomb explodes, killing two and injuring about 100. BUT it could have been catastrophic had Richard NOT reported the package in time, as the real bomber phoned in the threat. Hailed as hero, Richard (and his mom) are delighted with all the adulation’s, but the FBI is pressured to find the bomber. This is where FBI special agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) is told to find someone… FAST! Unfortunately, Richard perfectly fits the lone bomber profile and the FBI runs with it, even though there’s no physical evidence against him.
Worse yet, along comes the hungriest, sleaziest, most contemptible newspaper reporter around, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Doing anything (and I do mean anything) to get the story, she bangs Shaw for info about Richard Jewell. *This is where all the current controversy lies; many are claiming the real Scruggs never did this, nor did the FBI ever give up “info for sex”‘. Anyway, without checking any sources, she goes with it and the story breaks, damning Richard in the press & TV; calling him the bomber! As a media circus descends upon Richard and his mother’s small apartment, the FBI tries to coerce a confession out of Richard, but luckily he calls his old friend Watson for help.
Now that Richard has an attorney, everyone steps up their game. The FBI desperately tries to find something, anything on Richard to arrest him on, all media outlets wage their own personal attacks on him, and Richard is seemingly oblivious to just how far down he’s fallen into the rabbit’s hole. If you get a get a chance, check out the YouTube videos on Richard Jewell (I recommend the 60 Minutes interview) to see how amazing the actors were in coming close to their counter-parts for this movie. It’s eerie. Especially Paul Walter Hauser, who has had a career of playing mostly comedic roles. His portrayal in this movie of Richard is nothing less than stunning. Having to act somewhere between a savant and a mama’s boy is a challenge, and he pulls it off with tremendous effect.
But he had a dynamite screenplay to work with, and that fell to Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, Flightplan), someone who writes a bare-bones script that goes for the throat without any docu-drama nonsense. The dialogue is crisp and shattering, loaded with information without being dull or boring. And veteran Hollywood director and icon Clint Eastwood is about the easiest director out there. Just a point ‘n’ shoot kinda guy without any bells or whistles, and that’s just fine for this sort of film. He also chooses an impeccable cast.
Jon Hamm is great, with Sam Rockwell giving his usual outstanding performance. Kathy Bates nails her role, showing everyone why she wins Oscars. The most eye-catching role here (besides Hauser) belongs to Olivia Wilde, who gives almost a cartoonish, over-the-top showing of her character. It’s important to note that, after all that was said and done, Richard was finally cleared by the FBI and (not mentioned in the movie) won almost all of his libel suits against the media that crucified him. Read his Wikipedia page. It’s fascinating.
Although done in 1957, this black & white movie still resonates today with a powerful message. Trying to smear someone by writing about them in the tabloids, magazines, TV, newspapers or, in today’s world, all manner of social media, can inflict horrific and long-lasting pain.
H.R. Manley (Steve Cochran) loves dirt. Not the kind you find in your backyard, but the kind you find in those sleazy tabloids like The National Enquirer or in the old 50’s Hollywood Confidential magazine. In this fictionalized account, The Real Truth magazine attacks actors, musicians, evangelists, just about anybody that will sell their magazine. Of course, this reprehensible, cold-as-ice, holier-than-thou man is hated by all, and his stone attitude is unwavering.
Facing financial woes, Manley needs a huge, sensational story to make some bank, so he zeros in on superstar Mary Sawyer who is just about as pure as they come. Naturally he HAS to get dirt on her! The only past friend of Sawyer with ties to her is Scott Martin (Van Johnson), a second-rate marionette entertainer that just hit the big time. Manley, using his undercover contacts, finds that Martin was once a convicted felon and uses this information as blackmail against Martin so he’ll divulge the dirt on Sawyer to Manley. What a dick!
Martin now faces a terrible dilemma; does he give Manley the info he wants, knowing that it will certainly destroy Sawyer’s life, or does he remain silent and let his own life get ruined? Yes, Martin does the right thing and his career gets killed, his reputation is gone, and even his young son (Richard Eyer) is attacked at school. And Manley? He thinks this is all great! It’ll sell more magazines! However, his mother (Marjorie Rambeau) decides this magazine monster must die!
Yes, there many plot holes (you never hear or see Mary Sawyer, there’s no real slander per se, etc) and that pleading speech that Martin gives to a TV audience is cringingly awful. Still, the screenplay by novelist Jerome Weidman (The Eddie Cantor Story) tells a pretty diabolical story of what people will do to destroy the lives the others just for money (or pleasure). For 1957, some of the dialogue is dated, but the situation remains just as real and potent as 2019. I bet this exact scenario has been played out in some corner office with a tabloid somewhere.
Directed by the prolific Roy Rowland, who’d been a Hollywood staple since 1934, he made such memorable films as The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T and the hit musical, Hit The Deck. This was one of his plain ones, just pointing the camera and shooting, like a staged play. However, he needn’t worry as the cast drove the film for him. Cochran is brilliant as the unfeeling, unethical, ice-water-for-blood magazine publisher and Johnson is his rival as the two-bit performer whose life goes from extreme happiness to crashing into the gutter.
Ann Blyth is also excellent as his loving wife, who tries to hang on despite all the heart-ache thrown at her, and you got Hollywood legend Harold J. Stone as Martin’s manager for giving the film some fun. Then you have Richard Eyer who, for his young age, was never one of those ‘cutsie’ movie kids, but acted the hell outta any role given him with such a natural flair that he made it look easy.