“Richard Jewell”: Beliefs, Biases & Blind Spots

Richard Jewell movie
A review of "Richard Jewell"

I had the entire theater to myself. Well, almost. With less than ten minutes before the lights dimmed and the coming attractions started playing, two moms with small children in tow walked into the theater where I had intentionally positioned myself at the center seat of the back row. An odd choice I thought and, as it turned out, a completely wrong choice — of theaters that is — for these unsuspecting women and children. Jumanji 2 this was not. When a few choice words from Adam Sandler’s new movie, Gemstones, reached the delicate ears of the little ones, the moms knew they had made a wrong turn after the concession stand.

I knew why I had driven 90 miles to Roswell, New Mexico on opening night to watch a Clint Eastwood-directed biopic of Richard Jewell, a hero of the Centennial Olympic Park Atlanta Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Jewell, as the movie powerfully recounts, was later falsely accused of planting the bomb. He would eventually be cleared of wrong-doing, but his life — as well as his mother’s life — would never be the same.

Some people asked what I thought of Richard Jewell. In short, I liked the movie. I thought it was well-acted, particularly by Paul Walter Hauser, the actor who portrayed the title character. The movie was also well-directed, but more on that in a minute. If you want to see a cautionary tale about how the media and government can destroy a person based on false allegations (happens far more often than we would like to think), then you will enjoy (probably not the right word) this movie based on the real-life circumstances surrounding Richard Jewell.

Based on my own experience in a near-empty theater, which seems to be the norm around the country this past weekend, it’s safe to say that if you want to watch this movie in a theater, you need to do so sooner rather than later. I don’t know if the controversy surrounding Olivia Wilde’s portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs was responsible for the lower-than-expected box office returns. A more likely explanation is the fact that most people have no idea of who Richard Jewell was or why they needed to part with their hard-earned cash to spend 2+ hours of their lives to be “entertained” by such a sad story.

Read on if you want to know why I am glad that I chose to spend a Friday afternoon being reminded of the lessons of Richard Jewell — the man and the movie. After leaving the theater with such a positive review of 86-year-old director Clint Eastwood’s latest film, I began to think about my own beliefs, biases, and blind spots which inevitably led me to my assessment.

All of us have beliefs. Our beliefs may be religious, political, philosophical, cultural, etc., but these beliefs shape our view of the world. My worldview could be described as Biblical, Conservative, Evangelical, Christian. Because of my worldview – and my own experiences – I view the world, including movies, through my own, unique (and some might say peculiar) lens.

My beliefs are many, but regarding this movie, I belief that Richard Jewell was a hero who was unjustly accused of a crime that he did not commit. I believe that Clint Eastwood is a great actor and director. I also believe that the antagonists in Richard Jewell, namely law enforcement officials, particularly the F.B.I. agents represented by Jon Hamm, are men and women who are, by and large, dedicated public servants who risk their lives to keep us safe.

I further believe that the freedoms that we enjoy in this country, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, are to be cherished and protected. Lastly, I believe that there is only one person – Jesus Christ – who ever lived a perfect life. The rest of us, including Richard Jewell, law enforcement officials, reporters, and you & me, are flawed, imperfect people who sometimes allow our biases to get the better of us.

We all have biases, whether we want to admit it or not. Biases are preferences, predispositions, and preconceptions. Sometimes our bias can also result in prejudices against others based on their background. I not only am biased in favor of Clint Eastwood, but am biased against other directors and actors in Hollywood. Oliver Stone springs to mind.

In Richard Jewell, my favorable bias toward Mr. Eastwood conflicted with another one of my positive biases — a generally favorable view of law enforcement. Coupled with my legal bias in favor of the criminal justice system (imperfect as it may be), I am also predisposed to believe that those accused of a crime are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

As a conservative, I believe that government is not always the solution to the problem. As Ronald Reagan once stated famously stated, sometimes “government IS the problem.” When imperfect people in positions of power use that power to trample on the rights of innocent citizens, that is a problem that most definitely needs to be rectified.

Which leads us back to Richard Jewell – the person and the movie. Clint Eastwood has made a movie that is more shades of gray than black and white. It would be easy to say that Richard Jewell was unfairly accused without any justification or evidence whatsoever, that the F.B.I. was thoroughly corrupt and out to get a man who they knew was innocent.

As a pastor, my own personal experience ministering to church members who were F.B.I. agents, Capitol Hill Police Officers, and other federal government employees leads me to believe that the overwhelming majority of these public servants are good, decent people who are trying hard to get it right. There are always a few bad apples in every bunch that taint the good work of the many, many fine people who serve throughout our nation at all levels of government.

In the case of Richard Jewell, I believe that the F.B.I. agents (as portrayed by Jon Hamm and others) got it wrong. Seriously wrong. Life-altering wrong. However, just because someone is wrong does not necessarily mean that he or she is evil or malicious. Based on their own experiences and professional judgment — which proved to be wrong in hindsight — the F.B.I. and other law enforcement personnel had plausible reasons to conclude that Jewell may have been the bomber.

He fit the profile. But, profiles are only as good as the profilers. Even the best profilers in the nation or in the world are fallible human beings, prone to make errors in judgment. An error in judgment does not automatically equal sinister, evil motives. Sometimes people, even with the best of intentions, are wrong.

As portrayed in the movie, Richard Jewell actually contributed to the errors in judgment. He was a strange guy. His personality and his life situation made it easier — not harder — for law enforcement to suspect that Jewell was not a hero who saved people, but rather a villain who tried to gain fame and good will from his own act of terrorism.

In hindsight, we know that Eric Rudolph was the person who planted the bomb because he was eventually caught and confessed to this heinous crime. However, the F.B.I. agents, because of their beliefs and biases, had a blind spot when it came to Jewell. The reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kathy Scruggs, also had a blind spot. Her reliance on F.B.I. sources, coupled with her desire for a front page story, led her to publicly accuse a man who was truly innocent. Perhaps the writer and director of Richard Jewell had a blind spot when it came to how Scruggs in particular, and the press in general, were portrayed in the movie.

Like biases, we all have blind spots. We ignore certain facts because they don’t comport with our beliefs or our biases. We give our friends and allies the benefit of the doubt, but we are quick to judge guilty our opponents and enemies. We surround ourselves with like-minded people who themselves have their own blind spots, many times the exact same blind spots that we have. We get our news from sources that confirm our beliefs and biases. We reject and label as “fake news” all sources that we see as biased.

In our culture today, we often will unfriend people who do not share our worldview down to the nth degree. We surround ourselves with others who will not challenge us, but only affirm us. No matter our own beliefs – left, right, or center – we like to hear “Yes, you are absolutely right.” Who wants to hear that we’re wrong? If people hold different views than us, certain forces of culture demand that we write them off as not merely wrong, but evil. Just ask Ellen DeGeneres about her “friendship” with former President George W. Bush.

Instead of vilifying others when they don’t agree with us, why not find someone who does not share your beliefs, biases, or blind spots. Get to know them. Maybe in person. Maybe through Facebook or other Social Media. Try to understand where they are coming from. You don’t have to agree with their beliefs to be friends with someone. I know that’s hard for some to understand in today’s culture and political climate, but I truly appreciate my friends and family who do not share my beliefs. It helps me consider my own biases and blind spots. Hopefully I can help others to consider their own biases and blind spots, too.

If we talk to one another – and not past one another – then perhaps we can all learn and grow. And, the next time we are tempted to allow our biases and blind spots to get the best of us, we can rise above it and do better. Then we can be better. Better friends, better neighbors, better citizens. More grace and less dogmatic legalism. Who is with me?

2 Comments

  1. Excellent review pastor. Forrest Gump-like aspects of Jewell’s personality didn’t help him, so your point was well made. While justice prevails in the end, the prevalence of intolerance and disdain for those who do not fit society’s norms is an ongoing injustice. Perhaps Richard Jewell will awaken this reality in viewers and lead to higher standards for not only authority figures but all of us, too.

    • Allen,

      Thanks for the comment and encouragement. If we all learned to treat others with respect and to love our neighbor as ourselves, that would definitely lead to higher standards all around. Considering what we are witnessing in our culture, particularly within politics today, that would be a refreshing and much needed change. Hope you have a great day and God Bless,

      Howell

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