Richard Jewell review

For F*** Magazine

RICHARD JEWELL

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast : Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Nina Ariadna, Ian Gomez
Genre : Drama/Biographical
Run Time : 2 h 11 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : NC16

From director Clint Eastwood and writer Billy Ray comes a biopic about Richard Jewell, the man who called in a bomb threat and was vilified as a suspect. The film is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell by Marie Brenner, and the 2019 book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen.

It is July 1996 and the 26th Summer Olympics are taking place in Atlanta, Georgia. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard working at Centennial Park, notices a suspicious knapsack that is found to contain three pipe bombs. He is initially hailed as a hero but is soon regarded as a suspect in the bombing by the FBI, with agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) strongly believing Richard to be the culprit. Tipped off by Shaw, Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) breaks the story about Richard’s status as a suspect. The overwhelming media attention overwhelms Richard and his mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates). Richard turns to Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer who worked at a public law firm where Richard was a supply clerk ten years ago, for help. Watson must help Richard clear his name and turn the tide of public opinion.

Eastwood has been directing movies for over 30 years and is a skilled technical director. Richard Jewell captures the 1996 Atlanta setting with enough authenticity – the film was shot on location at the actual Centennial Park. The scene in which Richard discovers the bomb is tense and gripping. Later, a scene in which Watson times a walk between the site where the bomb was placed and the public payphones where the bomber called 911 is stylishly cut with footage of sprinter David Johnson at the Olympics. Eastwood tells the story efficiently and it is abundantly easy to sympathise with Richard, even as the viewer grows frustrated at him for being easily manipulated and a bit too naïve.

Eastwood is not just a good technical director, but a good actors’ director as well. He draws excellent performances from his cast here. Paul Walter Hauser is a loveable, hapless figure as Richard Jewell – he is not especially bright, but the film attempts to give him some dimensions.

Kathy Bates is a warm presence as Richard’s mother Bobbi, who simply wants the best for her son and cannot bear to see him falsely accused and placed under such immense pressure. Rockwell is a go-to actor for slimy roles, so it is always nice to see him in largely noble parts. Watson is an honest salt-of-the-earth type but is also fiery and impassioned. Some of the film’s best scenes are between Hauser and Rockwell.

Any film based on a true story will have inaccuracies, and one or two of the real people portrayed in said film – or those who knew them – are bound to come out and speak against the way they were characterised in the movie. With Richard Jewell, the inaccuracies seem more calculated. It’s harder to view them as honest mistakes and easier to believe that Eastwood had an agenda going on. It is common for biopics to make a larger point and provide commentary beyond the specific subject matter, but it feels like Richard Jewell leans too far in that direction, reducing the story to a vehicle for Eastwood’s political views.

The film does a huge disservice to journalist Kathy Scruggs, who passed away in 2001 from a prescription drug overdose after dealing with depression and is not around to defend herself. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an open letter by its editor-in-chief responding to how Scruggs and by extension the paper was portrayed in Richard Jewell. In the film, Scruggs is shown sleeping with a source for a scoop. The source, Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Shaw, is a fictionalised composite character, but Scruggs was very much a real person. This propagates the insidious trope that women journalists trade sexual favours for tips. Authors Alexander and Salwen, whose non-fiction book was the basis of the movie, have firmly maintained that Scruggs did not sleep with an FBI agent to obtain information for her story.

In real life, Richard Jewell certainly was treated unjustly by both law enforcement and the media. However, the film goes out of its way to portray the media and the FBI as unscrupulous and out to destroy Richard’s life. Eastwood is remarkably unsubtle about this, and in order to simplify the story, creates two main ‘villains’ in Shaw and Scruggs. Wilde’s Scruggs is nigh-cartoonishly evil. In trying to clear the name of its title character, Richard Jewell trades in false accusations, something that is regrettable given the quality of the performances in the film.

Summary: Richard Jewell is the work of a skilled filmmaker but is also the work of a filmmaker with an agenda. It is worth seeing for the performances, especially Paul Walter Hauser’s, but this recommendation comes with the caveat that one should research the true story and not take the film’s version of events at face value. In going further than necessary to make the media and the FBI the villains of the piece, Eastwood comes off as dishonest and irresponsible, even though the film is well directed and strongly acted.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Florence Foster Jenkins

For F*** Magazine

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay, John Kavanagh, Nina Ariadna
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 51 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG

florence-foster-jenkins-poster“Follow your dreams, pursue your passion” – we’ve all heard it before, and while it sounds nice, sometimes it might not be the most practical advice. What if you’re passionate about something you’re demonstrably terrible at?

Such was the case with Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a wealthy New York socialite with dreams of singing opera at Carnegie Hall. Florence’s husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant) arranges private concerts to which only vetted audience members are admitted, so as to shield Florence from any possible ridicule she might incur. St. Clair hires pianist Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) to be Florence’s accompanist, and while Cosmé is taken aback by Florence’s complete ineptitude, he accepts the job. When Florence gives her friends a recording of her singing as a gift, it’s not long before she becomes a sensation, with listeners across the country tickled by her tone-deaf performances. While he seems every bit the loving, supportive husband, St. Clair has secrets of his own, secrets in danger of being discovered by Florence.

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There is a whole subculture dedicated to the ironic appreciation of films that are “so bad they’re good” – movies like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Troll 2. Florence’s appeal as an amateur soprano was very much in the same vein. Multiple plays about Florence have been written and performed, with the 2015 French comedy-drama Marguerite drawing inspiration from her story. This material is right up director Stephen Frears’ alley. Having directed The Queen, Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents, Frears is a dab hand at helming both biopics and comedy-dramas. As expected, Florence Foster Jenkins is a light-hearted, silly film. There is an undercurrent of sorrow, but the film comes off more as a celebration of Florence’s own self-delusion and the gargantuan efforts taken to enable her than anything else.

The 1940s New York high society setting is sumptuously dazzling, and Florence’s penchant for over-the-top costumes means that her outfits are never dull to look at. The film has many laughs at Florence’s expense, but also endeavours to make her endearing. There’s no malice behind what she does, and she is kind to those around her. However, it is frustrating that someone so unskilled at her chosen art form was given the platform to showcase her ‘talents’ just because she was wealthy and well-connected. Florence is a sympathetic figure in no small part because of her chronic illness, but as a critic, this reviewer can’t stand 100% behind the reinforcement of an artist’s self-delusion in lieu of self-improvement.

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Most of Streep’s recent high-profile roles have had a degree of silliness to them, and this is obviously no exception. She is having plenty of fun rocking those ridiculous costumes and yelping as if she were a Chihuahua who has stubbed its toe, but perhaps this wanton goofiness isn’t the best use of her abilities. To draw a comparison to previous leading lady in a Frears film, Helen Mirren seems to have a healthy mix of lighter fare and serious dramatic roles in her recent résumé. Even then, Streep remains a commanding presence and her performance is supremely entertaining, while also heart-rending when required. It’s pretty hard to sing badly on purpose and not damage one’s vocal cords, so Streep deserves credit in mastering that particular skill.

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Here, we have Hugh Grant playing a typical Hugh Grant role – the charming, ever so slightly awkward English gentleman. A subplot revolving around St. Clair and Rebecca Ferguson’s character Kathleen brings many of St. Clair’s foibles to the fore, so there’s more to him than just “supportive spouse”. Helberg steals the show on multiple occasions as the beleaguered, long-suffering accompanist who is bewildered that no one in her circle is objecting to Florence’s singing. Half of this movie comprises priceless reaction shots: shock, incredulousness, uncontrollable laughter. Helberg’s reactions, particularly when Cosmé first hears Florence sing and is absolutely mortified, further prove that the Big Bang Theory star has considerable comedic chops. Helberg did the piano-playing for real too.

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While Florence Foster Jenkins plays it broad for the most part, there are scenes that pack considerable emotional impact. This is a film that’s put together by people who know what they’re doing, with a veteran director leading the charge. However, Florence Foster Jenkins shies away from challenging the idea that behaviour like this should be challenged. Towards the film’s conclusion, St. Clair scrambles to conceal a negative review of Florence’s performance from her, for fear that it would be too much to handle. If it is your nature to have that thin a skin, perhaps the performing arts just aren’t for you.

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Summary: It’s entertaining and funny, but Florence Foster Jenkins passes up the chance to examine the implications of blindly enabling someone who’s bad at something instead of helping them actually improve.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong