We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

Two Ghosts: "Richard Jewell" as White Melodrama

Based on the frenzy surrounding the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Bombing, Clint Eastwood's latest film is rife with complex creative frictions.
Uncas Blythe
Boogeyman came calling
I said I wasn't home
He didn't believe me
He wasn't alone
He had my number
He got my goat
He bought my ticket
He paid off my note
And he left in a hurry
Said he couldn't stay
I guess he had his reasons
I'm not the one to say…
—James McMurtry, "Peter Pan"
"Let us now move to consider the margins (one can just as well say the silent, silenced center) of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat."1
—Gayatri Spivak
About two thirds of the way through Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood pointedly starts to frame Georgia’s old state flag—the one with the Confederacy’s battle flag—in his compositions. This sort of chaotic Easter egging is the hallmark of a provocation which once was reliably the artist’s job, but who exactly is being provoked here? Who is really being addressed in the empty chair? The dispossessed white MAGA voter or the pro-law enforcement, statist liberal? Or both? Whatever the intention, and despite two fantastic, mutually attuned performances by Paul Walter Hauser and Sam Rockwell, the film has been judged a failure. But Eastwood’s “failures” are always more interesting than his successes.
The film, about the security guard falsely accused of being a domestic terrorist during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Bombing (played by Hauser), is a dazzlingly schizoid creation which wants to be both parable and process movie. Richard Jewell is based on an old script by Billy Ray, which Eastwood had tried to make sometime long before. Ray, who wrote and directed two brilliant procedurals built on similar ethical labyrinths, Shattered Glass (2003) and Breach (2007), is a weird, wonky match for Eastwood’s uncertain, glitchy certainties about the process of epistemic violence and its undoing. This is a film filled with fertile creative frictions—the opposite of a certified auteurist masterpiece.
Just because Richard Jewell is a Sirk movie for the “other” side, a white melodrama, as Tag Gallagher2 says, we shouldn’t fail to notice a few key things—the accused Jewell’s lawyer pal keeps telling him to shut up and let the state and his defender speak (and yell) over him, and one feels strongly this is what Clint loves about Jewell—that he must join his mother in speaking a sort of whispered “truth to power”—that truth being not even about any due process or justice but just for something ineffable, an almost spiritual value: an inalienable dignity which as Americans we often give lip service to, but in practice never feel that often. A paradoxical dignity that comes in the form of a literal assertion of homophobia. The FBI, in their furious haste to dig up a spurious conspiracy, suggests that Jewell and his friend are gay lovers and in cahoots, and this inspires his most vehement protest. Richard Jewell, whatever else he might be, is not a gay man.
“If we do not take steps now, Americans of color will forever be relegated to a penal and permanent underclass, and mass incarceration will continue to cage the economic growth of our communities. We have reached a crisis point, and we need solutions.”3 
—From the foreword to the Brennan Center’s report on America’s carceral state
Another provocation: In 2019, we are shown an innocent man accused of a capital crime, whose working class whiteness at first makes him automatically heroic, then the sign of something darker and perhaps malevolent. Now forgotten after 9/11, the domestic terrorist was the evil icon of the 1990s. But that is not the end of the story—unlike the thousands in the Brennan report, Jewell never does a single day in jail. Why is that? Because he is a media-anointed celebrity almost from the first moment, which gives him a holy aura of protection regardless and partly because of the Eastwoodian dialectics which as always operate on a deep, intuitive level. Eastwood made a movie that scorns the media’s summary judgements, but at the same time dropping crumbs about the mystery of his protagonist’s unscathed passage through the mediatic weather of such systems. Like the more fictionalized The Mule, it is a zeitgeist movie par excellence, but one that I think lives out the contradictions of the time rather than caters to them.
This is what this melodrama is about: Clint’s long deferred take on the victim as culture hero. Eastwood is presenting something monstrous, unthinkable: a white man who, with a Freudian longing for authority, is forcibly shorn off the straightjacket of white privilege—the elevated “hero” who becomes the downcast “victim.” Who gets railroaded, like his lawyer says, generically, archetypally like a black man in the South, or anywhere. Hold up! It is anathema to the liberal imagination that injustice depends on anything but systemic white supremacy. Because for the anarchistic Eastwood there is no such thing as a shared or generic hero’s journey, heroism is always a qualia-filled dream of individuation, which in turn reveals the crowd as hungry, venal, and careerist. A hero only discovers himself, like Antigone, by turning against society, by being socially bereft. There lies the emotional center of Richard Jewell—two desperate “little” people in purgatory—a mother and son—just pleading to be heard and delivered from the American Nightmare.
Let’s briefly talk about Eastwood’s late period obsession with the hero cycle, with heroism itself. Tom Hanks in Sully (2016) is not an everyman. His dark night of the soul is well lit. Hanks’ moral authority works against the drama. Having expertly crashed his plane and saved his passengers, Chesley Sullenberger is not ever a little man beset by a Langian frame—he is the expert, the professional, and he is ultimately affirmed against the glitching maw of technological abyss. His fundamental power and status is never challenged by the experience. Sully is a daring non-movie where Hanks has to dramatize waiting, brilliantly, for his turn at bat. But he is never the wrong man. In Richard Jewell we see the homely, Tupperware details of Richard and his mother Bobi’s (Kathy Bates) unheroic purgatory, and his recorded voice and intimates turned against him. Even Watson Bryant (Rockwell), Jewell’s “staunch” defender, berates him for making him look like an untelegenic fool on television, the ultimate crime.
In his 2018 film, The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood applied novelistic force to braid his neorealist exploration of gnostic providence. Spencer Stone is convinced that there is a convergence, a fate at work, and the film’s gestalt allows for both the Christian teleological view of heroism, that these guys were meant to be there, at the right place and at the right time—yet there is also the overwhelming sense that a nihilistic spirit of chance is in every “true” story. Fate is a mystery generated after the fact—and the estranging, Brechtian choice in that film to use the real-life protagonists to reinscribe their heroic deed is an echo of territory covered ironically in Flags of Our Fathers (2006). The genre-free essay film, hidden in the middle section of The 15:17 to Paris, about young Americans abroad on a summer lark, complete with chance encounters and jokes about selfies, takes on a metaphysical significance when we realize that the film (despite its mythic fictional frame) is itself a “selfie” about the contingent nature of heroism.
Fate is more urgently nihilistic in Richard Jewell. And the hero here at first tries to undo his boiling fate with a naïve goodness and appeasement. Yet Jewell’s arias of obsequiousness are camouflage for an anger on slow burn that erupts at the limit of his tragic belief in authority. An innocent, cantilevered precariously above bovine stupidity and country smarts, he spends a life seeking privileged authority, which is never granted, like a tragic version of Paul Blart, the mall policeman. Very few people ever grant him personhood, which has led to a double consciousness that traps him in this persona. Even Bryant, his lawyer who is supposedly in his corner, can only accept him if he never speaks. The salt of the earth, the peasant, Dalit, et cetera must stay silent. And this command Jewell compulsively disobeys, yet never in a way that wholly serves him. Hauser articulates his character’s weird dignity as a masochism that has to perform servility and dutifulness until, literally breathless, he can’t.
Jewell’s ordeal is blacker because his release from the FBI’s investigative labyrinth and frame-up job comes from some vague deus ex machina that isn’t meant to be understood, only felt in like a tsunami tide going out from this man’s life. All he can do is weep at this. That, combined with the old jazzman’s dissonance that he remains, after all this, a true believer in law enforcement (we see him as a police officer on duty at the end of the film),that this is his destiny, makes it, in its own way, as strange and bleak as Chris Kyle’s own death at the hands of another veteran, in American Sniper (2014). Another dead man in a uniform. So in a key way, due to the mechanics of biopics, and the economics of life rights, this is a story about two ghosts.
It is a strange truth that American media can be both doggedly adversarial toward smaller nodes of power, local politicians, con artists and such, and also be completely sycophantic (at least initially) toward the federales. Even or perhaps especially in decline, media has power and it worships it at the same time. It’s a Capraesque story, complete with a wicked Stanwyck fifth estater. Many have already pointed out the irony that Richard Jewell defames and villainizes (or “Jewells”) the late Kathy Scruggs, the reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution who broke the Jewell story. The average American has a colossal and dangerous naiveté about how the sausages of 24/7 media cycles are made—let them keep dreaming.
In addition, the film comes at a dark time when newspapers are becoming apocalyptically extinct, and has led to an unsurprising consequence: A megalomaniacal president who has run agonistically against the media (the same media that created him but cannot destroy him without revealing its own complicity) and controls the narrative daily with fresh doses of lies and misinformation that make the “frame” endlessly mutable. Trump is the mass media’s sorcerer’s apprentice who has replaced the master. It’s an amour fou: Trump uses the media as foil and projective surface—they are both addicted to each other and cannot quit each other. He knows this. Trump is good for the business because he is always open for it. 
But a little basic research shows that Olivia Wilde is playing close to verisimilitude. Her Kathy Scruggs “pops” on the screen for a reason. She’s both real and she is also an archetype. Because, contrary to what civilians believe, historical fiction is not a zero sum game. Strange elusive energies can come to incarnate the facts. And Wilde’s own eloquent defense (on Twitter of all places) of her characterization is worth going into precisely because it is so not what the film’s detractors are portraying it as—a misogynist cartoon. But it is telling of course that Wilde feels she has to defend her performance choices alone. A rule of thumb: when a film is celebrated, the laurels are scant; when there are problematics, that is when it becomes a collective work, a clusterfuck of muses.
 “I was asked to play the supporting role of Kathy Scruggs, who was, by all accounts, bold, smart, and fearlessly undeterred by the challenge of being a female reporter in the south in the 1990s. I cannot even contemplate the amount of sexism she may have faced in the way of duty.”4
And this intersects with accounts of the (male) colleagues and police officers who knew her, who try and fail to bottle her up and naturally wind up making her a mythic figure. And Eastwood shows us besotted males and female colleagues alike recoiling from her. Like in Ray’s Shattered Glass, success as a reporter inevitably involves the creation of mystique.
“She was blonde and wore miniskirts and gaudy stockings. She smoked. She drank. She cussed. She flaunted her sexuality. She dated Lewis Grizzard [Ed. the popular Southern humorist]. She dated an editor who allegedly beat her with a telephone. She dated cops, including one who was accused of stealing money from the pockets of the dead. ‘Kathy was a bigger-than-life figure,’ Coram [Ed. Robert Coram, who wrote a novel with a character based on her] says. “She was over the top in many ways.”5
Which begs the question: Is this the only acceptable persona for her, leaning in, in this hard drinking macho milieu, or was Scruggs being authentically herself out of some desperate psychic need? I find this ghost as haunting, maybe more, as the nominal protagonist.
“I do not believe that Kathy ‘traded sex for tips”. Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did…”4
She is alluding to a lost context that might be better drawn in another, more complex movie: playing “one of the guys” on a police beat. Wilde, as the actor, believes that the dramatic situation where Scruggs gets the fatal tip about Jewell being a suspect from an FBI agent that sets fate in motion, is of two previously involved sexual partners, the information exchanged as pillow talk—despite the baldness (and badness) of the controversial scene, it is a good argument—she is correct that it would be unbelievable for strangers to be this transactional and robotic. And yet Wilde doesn’t cave to the puritan demands of social discourse that Scruggs be an asexual Baby Yoda of journalism:
 “…let me be clear: I do not believe sex-positivity and professionalism are mutually exclusive. Kathy Scruggs was a modern, independent woman whose personal life should not detract from her accomplishments.”4
And then in the aftermath of the big scoop, the newspaper’s ongoing mindless endorsement of the FBI’s fantasy narrative develops an unstoppable momentum. The FBI’s amateur storytelling is in turn deconstructed by a master storyteller, who loves to unsettle surface mythologies even though the movie suggested by the trailer is more powerful and mysterious than the remaining artifact. Scruggs is less a villain than a victim of processes beyond her control—but Eastwood isn’t interested in such procedural beats. He only wants one martyr here. 
“But as soon as she brought back the scoop, her work was fed into an editorial meat grinder that spewed out copy like chum. In story after story, the paper’s relentless coverage of Jewell, with Scruggs as the key reporter, was the journalistic equivalent of a “shock and awe” campaign. Critics later said the AJC failed to exercise healthy skepticism about information from law enforcement sources. And some cops and friends feel Scruggs became the scapegoat for errors of fact and judgement made by her editors.”5
Yet it was during the AJC’s kaleidoscopic wall-to-wall carpet coverage that another AJC reporter, Bill Rankin, actually did the payphone walk that eviscerates the “lone bomber” theory about Jewell. And, yes, we can fault Eastwood and Ray, the screenwriter, and probably Jonah Hill and DiCaprio, the original producers, for not deepening the story and making it also about the fatal consequences to Scruggs of this same story. It’s a road not taken, and a real artistic failure. When Jewell sued for defamation, “The AJC fought the suit and, in 1999, Scruggs was ordered to jail if she didn’t reveal her source for the story. She refused and avoided jail on appeal.”5 The source and context of the fatal tip remains unknown to this day. Kathy Scruggs risked jail to die with the secret. That’s a different kind of real heroism that Eastwood, unusually Manichean, has zero interest in. In a coda of ripe pathos, unportrayed in the film, the real life Kathy Scruggs dies of an opioid overdose nine days before 9/11. There is no Letter from Iwo Jima (2006) coming on this one. But no matter, Wilde, as actor, has done justice to the other ghost in Richard Jewell, even beyond the intent of the filmmakers. 
So back to Tag Gallagher going Schopenhauerian in his great article on Sirk: “There are only two Sirk themes: characters who successfully impose their Wills despite pain (white melodrama), and characters who are dominated by their Wills, who like Faust sell out to lust (black melodrama).”2 What happens in Richard Jewell is the hero lives out the white melodrama and gets to be willful while Kathy Scruggs receives the story’s (and the media’s) Faustian projection. A successful epistemic exchange has occurred. And this is consistent with the secular madonna-whore duality that runs like a knife through Eastwood’s personal life and is without a doubt reflected in this film.
“The problem is that the subject’s itinerary has not been traced so as to offer an object of seduction to the representing intellectual.”1
—Gayatri Spivak
In the wake of Trump’s 2016 election, the white melodrama of the dispossessed, unheard, “white working class” became the subject for rabid masturbatory analysis by and of the mediatic class. What is this “sudden” new racist gun-toting Other who was held responsible for Hillary Clinton’s long-gestating political demise and Trump’s fuck-you ascendancy? A newfound erotic object for the inken-lumpenbourgeoisie: “Speak, at last we want to hear your pain, and better yet we want to vocalize it for you.” Likewise, Richard Jewell also became a text, in his day, as the FBI and the press, to different degrees, decided to overwrite him as a sign of insurgency. At first, the FBI wants to paint him, very recursively for a film protagonist, as a terrorist who seeks a special type of media attention and validation—the “would-be” hero. But when this lone warrior story starts to crumble, the agents half-heartedly try to find a conspiracy to fit the crime. So in telling the story of past epistemic violence, Eastwood must make “Jewell” a text once more, and one where the actors must rise beyond the epistemic violence that the film itself commits. Do they? Can they? Or is this an impossible task?
So what made/makes Richard Jewell subaltern? His self-characterization as “a pillsbury doughboy”; his corpulence, usually the exclusive province of comedy, undermined only for a moment by the amazing scene where he heroically dashes up three flights of stairs like a bunny rabbit before the bomb explodes to poetically save the camera functionaries in the media tower; his gun toting; as well as his eternal sheepishness; the wily bewildered expression on his face makes him an aesthetic subaltern. Naturally, this would be an impossible argument to make if, for example, Hauser had gotten the Oscar nomination he completely deserves. But we don’t have that problem.
This is the paradox of Richard Jewell, the film. A Hollywood film, any film really, is usually the ultimate proof of access to hegemonic discourse. The cinematic is almost always hegemonic, at least until it is subsumed, and hopefully destroyed by the tides of new media. Even and especially in a Pedro Costa film, where subalternity speaking becomes a career commodity. The most successful counter-example of kinesthetic anarchism are the late films of Peter Watkins, especially The Freethinker (1994) and La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), where Watkins starting from research, script, et cetera builds up, at length, an investigative community which then becomes the secret subject of each film. These are of course unique films that dynamically abandon their nominal subjects to explore, in good faith, the process of their coming to be.
It would be crazy to say the same thing happens in Richard Jewell, because it is formally not adventurous as a production yet it also has a spiral form because it interrogates media narratives recursively. In this way it is a film that wants us to forget how strange it is, and even forget the agonism of its protagonist. But in this case, the strange damnedness of the protagonist and Kathy Scruggs persists, etched somehow into the soul of the film. There is no true happy ending here, no applause-worthy assertion of kitschy democratic values.
In his final encounter with the FBI, Jewell once again speaks out of turn, challenging his accusers to do something, anything, with the ad-hoc story they have stitched together. Eastwood mocks the logo and motto of the FBI on the door (“for those initials also represent the three things for which the Bureau and its representatives always stand: ‘Fidelity - Bravery - Integrity.’”6) And Hauser, in Jewell’s moment of direct defiance, gets to embody these things, while he speaks his disenchantment—for a brief moment he has broken the spell of authority and he shames them all into silence.
Jewell and Scruggs stay abject. The mystery of the deus ex machina sequence, and Scruggs’ fictionalized regret, makes for a hollow non-vindication. The government simply seems to lose interest in Jewell. The FBI agent nemesis played by Jon Hamm delivers Jewell’s new status as no longer a person of interest. From hero to terrorist to icon of disquiet. There is no apology, nothing but a laughably hollow valediction of “I think your client is guilty as hell.” A final humiliation, erasing him as always, lawman to lawyer, even though Jewell is present. He has served his purpose. Victims, I don’t need to say, are crucial to the power, the identifying power, the vengeful power, of both the government and the mediatic class. The Victim is a culture hero because they legitimize and sustain the power of hegemonic structures.
As long as they stay victimized, naturally. 
1. Spivak, Gayatri, C. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrismas,Columbia University Press, 1994.
2. Gallagher, Tag, "White Melodrama." Sense of Cinema, http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/sirk-2/
3. Brooks, Cornell, W. Foreword. "How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?" Brennan Center for Justice, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-many-americans-are-unnecessarily-incarcerated
4. @OliviaWilde. Twitter, 12 Dec. 2019, 4:55pm
5. Monroe, Doug."Requiem for a Reporter: Kathy Scruggs." Atlanta Magazine, https://www.atlantamagazine.com/news-culture-articles/requiem-for-a-reporter-kathy-scruggs/
6. Lester, W.H. Drane, 1935, quote attributed from the FBI seal and motto page: https://www.fbi.gov/history/seal-motto 


Clint EastwoodLong ReadsBilly Ray
Please login to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please send us a sample of your work. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.