Clint Eastwood is a great filmmaker. Unforgiven is a flawed, but still magnificent, western that deals with the tension between legend and reality. Eastwood’s latest film – Richard Jewell – is another example of tight, well-wrought filmmaking. But as good as the film is as storytelling, it emits a rotten smell. OK, it’s hardly as rotten as the classic Birth of a Nation, another well-wrought film with a dark propaganda edge; but in Richard Jewell, Eastwood isn’t shooting straight from the hip. In this Trump impeachment moment, the culture-war spin often seems crude and obvious.
The film tells the true story of an overweight mama’s boy security guard who discovers a bomb in an Atlanta park during the 1996 Olympic games. The pipe bomb with nails in a backpack killed two people and injured over 100. At first a media hero, Jewell is soon accused by a clueless FBI of planting the bomb himself. After an FBI leak to the press, the investigation becomes a media circus and Jewell’s life is turned upside down. The film received flak for its portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. The script by Billy Ray (from other sources) has her giving sexual favors for the leak from the FBI agent played by Jon Hamm. We know from the beginning of the heavily promoted film (at least two full-page ads in the NY Times) that Jewell is an innocent victim. The film bombed on its opening day; I saw it on its second day, a Saturday, and there was maybe ten people in the theater. Variety called it a “flop.”
As the movie opens, Jewell is working as a janitor and delivery boy for an Atlanta business association, where he befriends a lawyer named Watson Bryant, played by the great Sam Rockwell. Jewell dedicates himself to fluffing up Bryant by doing things like replenishing his supply of Snickers bars. We’re made aware of Jewell’s aspirations to work in law-enforcement, as well as his predilections for over-enthusiastic harassment of college kids at a university where he worked as a security guard and was fired. Jewell is played quite sensitively by unknown Paul Walter Hauser, and Kathy Bates plays his beloved mama, Barbara.
Eastwood soon reveals his hand, and it’s a pretty heavy-handed reveal. When Jewell gets a job as a security guard, he drops by lawyer Bryant’s office to say goodbye. Bryant likes Jewell, and as the chubby fellow is leaving, he opens his wallet and hands the man a one-hundred-dollar-bill, saying – I kid you not – “This is a quid pro quo.” Jewell is an authentically simple man, and he looks a bit perplexed. Bryant says the Latin term at least twice, maybe three times. “Quid pro quo. It means this for that.” In Bryant’s quid pro quo, the one-hundred-dollar-bill is the this and the that is: “When you get a badge, don’t be an asshole.” As in the House impeachment hearings, the money is essentially a bribe: I’m giving you this money, if you agree not to be an asshole.
Now, how many times have you heard the Latin term quid pro quo in a popular movie? I dare say, not too many times; and certainly never emphasized, repeated and explained to such a degree. After that, I was waiting for the deep state references. And sure enough, there it was, although in this case Eastwood was a bit more subtle than in the quid pro quo reference. Bryant leaves the business job and opens his own law office, and when he’s shown on the phone in three separate scenes there’s a bumper sticker very evident over his left shoulder, stuck on the bottom of a poster of a mountain scene, that informs us:
I FEAR THE GOVERNMENT MORE THAN I FEAR TERRORISM.
We’re also treated in several scenes to confederate flags, either part of the state flag at the time and on a wall poster in the FBI office. Of course, this is Georgia in the mid-1990s before the confederate flag became a political football; so one might say it’s accurate mis-en-scene prop work. But it’s prop work that would play very well to the Trump base.
So big deal; Clint Eastwood is a conservative Republican. The real question is: is the movie any good? I was moved by it. In the current internet/media world, a good movie can also be calculated propaganda. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. The point is, is the intended viewer savvy enough in the critical thinking department to balance the two views of the same movie? And not get sucked into a subtexual Sean-is-right, see-how-evil-the-deep-state-is vortex?
We already know how clunky Clint Eastwood can be in the political arena. All we have to do is remember that awkward and very dumb stunt he tried to pull off at the Republican convention in 2012, where he talked to a chair on stage. The chair was suppose to be President Barack Obama, or Obama was to be imagined sitting in the chair — or something like that. It frankly made you wonder whether the man had lost his marbles. It wasn’t that the stunt was in bad taste; it was just so odd and boring it made absolutely no sense. It felt like a “tell” as to how simple-minded Eastwood’s political analysis was. Never mind his genius and sensitivity for no-nonsense filmmaking; when it came to politics, he had all the complexity of Dirty Harry. Hey, Osama Obama, or whatever your Kenyan name is, make my day.
Both the clean cinematic storyteller and the political jerk are at work in Richard Jewell. In a previous essay, I made a comparison between Eastwood and Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, both artists of their times determined to be popular and commercially successful. Twain was revolutionary in the first third of Huckleberry Finn, then in the middle there’s some wonderful satiric material along the Mississippi, then the book finishes with the arrival of conman Tom Sawyer and Jim starts sounding like step-n-fetch-it as he gets locked up by Tom in a chicken coop. Twain was stymied with the book and put it up for 12 years while he got a publishing company in order, so he could make money on his books. He knew if he continued with the subversive tone of the beginning (Jim as a real man and a surrogate father figure for a poor, abused white kid), he’d end up like Herman Melville, a failure in his time. So he played to popular fashion in the period where Jim Crow is beginning to rise and had it both ways. Eastwood essentially does the same thing in Unforgiven. He’s got an amazing revisionist western going great guns focused on gunmen and the realities of frontier violence, then at the end, he reverts to the pop Eastwood of the spaghetti westerns and has his aging gunman get revenge for the murder of his pal Morgan Freeman by shooting 10 guys dead with a six gun. Suddenly Dirty Harry shows up in Dry Gulch, Montana. It’s a blatant artistic compromise pandering to popular, commercial demand.
Was Eastwood’s motive for making Richard Jewell a clunky political decision to provide cultural cover for victim Donald Trump in his fight with liberal Democrats, a rogue deep state FBI and an irresponsible media? It smells a bit like that. As a leftist in the anti-war movement I was investigated in some fashion or other by the FBI; I know because a Philadelphia police captain took me aside at a demonstration and told me. I was doing nothing wrong, so I didn’t give it much thought; but, then, neither did Richard Jewell. So I’m very sympathetic to the idea the FBI can be over-zealous or outright dishonest; as in this movie, the pressure to get somebody — anybody! — for a heinous, public crime can overpower any interest in justice or fairness. An innocent person’s life can easily be caught in a police-state meat-grinder.
But only a polarized Republican jerk could equate the outrageous, unjust treatment of Richard Jewell by both the FBI and the news media with what’s going on against Donald Trump. But therein lies the problem. A powerful, moving film like this can work in the minds of political jerks to culturally reinforce the ridiculous narrative that poor Donald Trump is a victim of partisan agents out to overturn the 2016 election.
I’d ask Clint Eastwood why he didn’t make a movie of Leonard Peltier being railroaded by the FBI into federal prison, where he rots to this day? Where’s the Hollywood money for Eastwood to make a film on the killing of Fred Hampton? The list of FBI abuse of people on the left is long and sordid.
In 1973, French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote a seminal book called Propagandas: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. One of his important ideas was that propaganda didn’t have to be untrue; in fact, the more true it is the more powerful it is. In our internet world, truth is on the ropes and bullshit rules; what matters is what stories get coverage and get made into films and what doesn’t get covered and what doesn’t get funded for films.
The other day in a thrift shop for 99 cents I bought a 1953 book titled Film in the Battle of Ideas by John Howard Lawson, a president of the Screen Writers Guild in Hollywood. More than anyone, he understood the powers of preclusion and inclusion in the stories told to the American people. He writes about the “propaganda problem” of Hollywood movies. In the post-WWII climate in America, “Aggressive war must be presented as a ‘crusade for freedom’; at the same time, the real purposes of the ‘crusade’ — larger profits, increased exploitation, mass destruction — must be justified and defended.” Lawson and scripts like he wrote were effectively marginalized when he was sent to prison by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Who would have thought the man who made his Hollywood spurs playing the lovable, spaghetti western sociopath with no name, the .44 magnum-wielding “make my day” cop Dirty Harry and the eventual director of a host of tough-guy movies would end his career directing a movie about a “Pillsbury doughboy” living with his mama who, in a final scene in a diner, breaks down in tears and is hugged and comforted by his lawyer. But we do feel for the poor rotund everyman abused by the FBI, who, among other things, suggested he was gay, which angered him more than anything else.
While it may explain its poor box office, the film’s sensitivity for a mama’s boy wanna-be-cop doesn’t mitigate the political opportunism of the decision to make this movie now. For one simple reason: Donald Trump isn’t innocent and he’s not a victim at the mercy of deep state powers. Despite what Sean Hannity drills home ad-nauseum every night, the president of the United States is not being abused by a rogue FBI and a reckless media. Indeed, he’s the most powerful man in the world, he controls the US Senate and he can take care of himself.
The cinematic mama’s boy maybe most appropriate for linking with Donald Trump is the James Cagney psychopath in the 1949 film White Heat, which ends with Cagney atop a giant gasoline tank that explodes.
“Top o’ the world, Ma!”