As a criminal defense attorney, I’m compelled to write about Richard Jewell. A movie that deeply explores the criminal justice system despite the fact no charges are brought, no arrests are made, there is no trial, no courtroom histrionics, no suspenseful appeals.
Instead, there’s a man ‘just’ suspected of a horrific crime – the Atlanta Centennial Park bombing during the Olympics in 1996. Richard Jewell was the security guard who found the bomb, spread the alarm and helped move the crowd back. He undoubtedly saved many lives. For three days he was the hero of Centennial Park, a media darling who made all the TV rounds.
Then the FBI began to look at him as a likely suspect, it was leaked to the press, and Jewell was, overnight, reviled.
All that happens in the first twenty minutes of Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. The remaining 109 minutes delve into the machinations of the FBI and the incredible emotional and psychological stress the investigation and constant media presence exert on Jewell and his mother.
Eastwood nailed it. Viscerally. Richard Jewell quickly becomes a searing portrait of an ‘average citizen’ who, over the course of 88 grueling days, endures everything the federal government can bring to bear. It’s invasive, relentless, and maddening.
The moment in the film when the suspense, for me, took off was in Jewell’s initial interview with the FBI. He wanted to talk, his life-long affinity for law enforcement fell just a hair short of idolatry. He admired the FBI. He wanted the agents to like him. He did not want to disappoint them.
At first – in the movie he goes it alone through the first interview before asking to call an attorney, in real life he went longer – he chats away, completely unaware that his every word, every action, every reaction is being assessed to his detriment. He’s talking to people who have already made up their minds he was involved in the bombing, one death, and over one hundred injuries. I cringed through the interview and every subsequent scene where Jewell tries to explain things to the agents because I, like every criminal defense attorney, knows that no truer words have ever been written than Graham Greene’s “the impossibility of explaining anything to a man with power.”
Remember the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when the dance floor slowly splits opens and George and Mary are dancing unaware they’re about to fall into the swimming pool below them? That’s exactly the position Jewell is in every time he speaks to an agent. George and Mary were one step from hitting the water, Jewell is one word away from being arrested.
It’s that close. The FBI is under intense pressure to solve the case. Jewell fits a profile. His own lawyer, Watson Bryant, tells him the FBI “would be derelict not to investigate you.” He is also, of course, innocent. Still, if he hadn’t eventually listened to Bryant to ‘stop helping’ the FBI, Jewell very well might have been charged.
It would have been unfair; it would have been tragic; it happens every day.
Toward the end of the film, Jewell, his mother, and Bryant are sitting in the Jewell home – it has been stripped bare by a federal search warrant – and explains why he responds to the agents, “I was raised to respect everything that authority represents.” Bryant immediately responds, “That authority is outside that window waiting to eat you alive.
Those are the words I’d like people to take from the movie. No one thinks it can possibly happen to them until it does. No one should ever try to ‘explain things’ on their own. Watch Richard Jewell and imagine what happens if he doesn’t stop that first interview and call Bryant. It’s not a pretty sight and it’s an entirely different movie, one where people are frantic to get an innocent man out of prison.