Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell

14/01/19

We’re only two weeks into the new year, yet we’re already on our third excoriating movie exposé of a corrupt American justice system. Appalled? Yes. Saddened? Yes. Surprised? Not so much. Not any more.

Richard Jewell is the story of a hapless security guard, the focus of an intense FBI and media investigation. His crime? Discovering a bomb and alerting the authorities. But lazy  stereotyping (‘he’s a bit of an oddball and he lives with his mom’) is enough to convince the forces-that-be that Jewell is the perpetrator, responsible for two deaths and more than a hundred injuries, despite a lack of any evidence whatsoever. And, once that suspicion is leaked to the press, Jewell loses control of his life.

Paul Walter Hauser gives us a convincing portrayal of a decent man driven almost to despair. He portrays Jewell as utterly sincere – a naïve, mild-natured, over-zealous employee, a stickler for the rules. His mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), has always taught him to respect authority, and Jewell has absolute faith in law and order. He is devastated when it proves to be a phoney, a façade.

Sam Rockwell plays Watson Bryant, the real estate lawyer who comes to Jewell’s rescue (in real life, Bryant employed a team to help him; here – for the sake of a stronger storyline – he goes it alone). It’s a terrific performance, giving us a real sense of the man’s selfishness and impatience as well as his deep-rooted morality. Thank goodness for Bryant; I dread to think what might have happened to Jewell if he hadn’t once worked in the same building and earned the man’s respect. Without representation, who knows?

It’s so depressing. How can a so-called mature democracy have a justice system that is so blatantly unfair, where guilt or innocence is decided by how much money an individual has, or by the colour of their skin, or by how desperate the law enforcers are to meet their targets? And Eastwood’s film delivers this message well.

A shame, then, that the women’s roles are so reductive, and that real-life AJC news reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is depicted as having slept her way to success. It’s an evidence-free stereotype as offensive and pervasive as the one the movie exposes.

It’s not the film’s only fault. Billy Ray’s script is somewhat pedestrian – long-winded in places – and the cinematography a little murky but, nevertheless, taken in conjunction with Seberg and Just Mercy, this amounts to a searing condemnation of a broken institution.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Seberg

13/01/20

In the year 2020, who even remembers the name of Jean Seberg? Not many people judging by the meagre crowd gathered at tonight’s screening. 

But hers is a fascinating story of toxic stardom, of a young performer whose life was systematically destroyed by the FBI; of a reckless but well-intentioned young woman, who got embroiled in events she couldn’t hope to control – events that would eventually destroy her. 

Catapulted to stardom at the age of seventeen, Seberg starred in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and suffered serious burns when her character’s onscreen immolation went horribly wrong. A few years later, she became the darling of the French New Wave when she starred in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless. But Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews, examines her ill-fated trip to Hollywood in the late 60s, where she’d gone to film the Western musical Paint Your Wagon. (Or ‘Clint Eastwood Sings!’ as it’sfondly remembered my many.)

Seberg (Kristen Stewart) reluctantly leaves her husband Roman (Yvan Attal) at home with their young son. On the plane to America, she meets up with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an influential player in the burgeoning Black Power movement. She shows solidarity with his cause, contributing funds for the school he runs and, shortly afterwards, embarks on an affair with him. This brings her to the attention of the FBI, where operative Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is directed to put her under intense surveillance. When Seberg starts to engage with more powerful members of the Black Panthers, the agency sets put to discredit her by making the details of her affair with Jamal public – and, in the increasingly poisonous atmosphere that ensues, Seberg’s sanity is pushed to the edge of the abyss…

Seberg is an interesting if somewhat flawed film. Stewart is an assured actor (and, given the invasive media coverage she herself has endured, it’s easy to see what attracted her to this role), but the fictional elements of this retelling of Seberg’s story are rather less successful. O’Connell’s tightly buttoned FBI man doesn’t really have enough to do, hanging around the edges of events, listening in on her via bugging devices and serving as the audience’s collective conscience. His exchanges with his hard nosed colleague Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughan) are nicely drawn but don’t add much to the telling.

The era is nicely evoked but I would have liked to have seen some recreations of the filming of Paint Your Wagon thrown into the mix. (This is, after all, a biopic.) Perhaps there simply wasn’t the budget for that approach or more likely the filmmakers couldn’t obtain the rights. There are a couple of tantalising glimpses from St Joan and Breathless, but its not enough.

In some ways, this could be seen as the tale of a luckless individual crushed by the corrupt might of American law enforcement. But really, as Seberg herself says, ‘I am not the victim here.’ There is a much bigger  story – a shocking demonstration of the depths that the American justice system will sink to in order to prevent black people from ever achieving any sort of equality.

There seem to be quite a few such stories around right now. Add Just Mercy and Richard Jewell to the mix and we’re beginning to see a familiar trope. All of these films offer the same narrative: America is a corrupt and unforgiving place and things aren’t getting any better for the poor and the dispossessed.

This is worth seeing for Stewart’s powerful performance in the title role, but I can’t help feeling it could have been more effective than it ultimately is.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney