Richard Jewell: Eastwood’s Medal Shot?

In this time of sharp political polarization in the US, it is well known that many television programs and movies tend to appeal much more to one side of the spectrum than another. It is therefore reasonable to ask, regardless of the intentions of the creators, to whom a particular work is most likely to appeal.

From this perspective, Richard Jewell, is a perfect movie for the Trump base. A sincere, law-abiding, poorly-educated white man, is framed by the FBI, with the enthusiastic collusion of the media. Jewell is the prototypical Trump voter, and the FBI and the media top the list of “enemies of the people.”

Reviewers have noted that the movie hews fairly closely to the historical record. Richard Jewell, a security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, discovered an abandoned backpack at a concert, alerted authorities, and saved many lives by clearing the crowd. The FBI, acting on the theory that the hero could be a bomber intending to draw attention to himself, began investigating Jewell. The aspect of the movie that has drawn the most criticism is its portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, a crime reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as trading sex with FBI agents for tips. Those who knew Scruggs maintain that she flirted, but never prostituted herself for this or any other story.

As I discuss in my recent academic article “Beyond Woodstein: Narratives of Investigative Journalism,” there are many cinematic depictions of effective and ineffective journalistic practice. The movie Richard Jewell most reminds me of is Absence of Malice (1981). Absence of Malice was a reaction to the lionization of investigative journalists following All the President’s Men, and presented a fictional narrative about a female investigative journalist making several egregious errors of tradecraft, one of which is having a relationship with a person she is writing about. However, in Absence of Malice the relationship is the result of mutual attraction (certainly plausible with actors Sally Fields and Paul Newman), rather than a journalistic honey pot.

President Trump has used the Presidential Medal of Freedom to reward supporters – financial (Miriam Adelson), ideological (Antonin Scalia, Arthur Laffer) and political (Orrin Hatch) – as well as cultural icons (Elvis Pressley) and athletes (Babe Ruth, Roger Staubach, Tiger Woods, Roger Penske) who appeal to the base. Given this film’s explicit message and director Clint Eastwood’s long-standing libertarian politics, if Trump watches it, he might well add Eastwood to his list of honorees. On the other hand, the film’s box office results in its opening weeks haven’t been great, suggesting that the base hasn’t been watching. We’ll see.

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