A Body Before Law and Order

richardjewell

(versão em português aqui)

There is a lot in common between Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell and Sully, not so much how they both start from the exactly same premise (a man saves the lives of hundreds and then has to deal with government investigation about him), but because both are films that exist mainly through gestures and reactions.In the earlier film, there’s an event (an almost aerial disaster) that did not last for more than a few minutes, which was then observed and stretched in order to account for each reaction at all stages of rescue response.Richard Jewell has a more conventional biopic and character study structure, but it is a film built entirely on the body of actor Paul Walter Hauser and how he reacts to each situation.Sully’s dramatic arc in so far as it had one was written in the body language of Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart and how those few minutes in the cockpit bond them, so Richard Jewell’s drama is presented less through the actions of its screenplay, but in the form with Hauser’s demeanor changes over the course of his martyrdom.

Richard Jewell much like Sully is part of the series of historical panels on heroic figures of recent American history that Clint Eastwood has been drawing in the last few years.Jewell was the security guard who located a suspicious backpack and prevented a major tragedy in a terrorist attack at the 1996 Olympics and later found himself suspected of the crime.The differences between Sully and Jewell are every bit as notable starting with the fact that the airline pilot is played by Hanks and the security guard by Hauser.Sully is an extraordinary figure played by one of the most iconic contemporary actors, Jewell is of a touching insignificance and if audience member remembers Hauser, it is probably for one of his comic relief roles.We will never doubt that nothing can happen to Sully’s dignity because Hanks is there to assure us of his larger than life place, as far as Jewell is concerned one cannot be so sure.

The emphasis on Jewell’s demeanor goes well with how above all else this is a drama of appearances.There is nothing incriminating Jewell other than that he looks guilty.A clumsy fat man who lives with his mother and  is obsessed with the images of heroism that Eastwood himself represents so well.The film does not gild the pill on the character, we know that Jewell did nothing, but he seem like someone capable of committing an attack: from his resentment to his paranoia to his beloved gun collection, everything in his characterization suggests the right profile (there is a recurring joke in how the more Jewell expresses himself the more he sounds both harmless and guilty).This is not the only way the logic of film narrative and policing will cross paths. On the other side, there is the FBI agent played by Jon Hamn who since Mad Men has built a career precisely in suggesting the reassurances of an idea of ​​American success.Everything we need to know about Hamm is expressed in his second scene when he looks in horror at the Olympic park audience dancing to the Macarena.There is a whole ideal of authority and success and a condescension for those who are not able to make it.

This idea of ​​appearances is reinforced in the back half when the investigation of Jewell intensifies.Aside from limiting the FBI’s abuses of power, Sam Rockwell’s attorney’s job has much more to do with image control.There is a narrative dispute and his function is to present the best possible one about his client.His great triumph is not in court, but in staging a press conference that reinforces the idea of ​​Jewell as a victim of injustice.Through most of the running time, Rockwell suggests less a lawyer than a film director dealing with an uncooperative actor.Hauser and Rockwell have excellent chemistry, but the film never suggests a great intimacy between them, but a very clear delimitation of roles (there’s a large contrast with the genuine warmth in the scenes with Kathy Bates’ mother).Much of their scenes together involve Rockwell directing Hauser’s behavior and getting frustrated by his difficulty in abandoning his servile fascination towards law enforcement officers.

This fascination with law and order is central to the film.In one of their first scenes, the lawyer, who is explicitly identified as a libertarian, on learning that Jewell has applied for a job in the police, recommends him not to become an asshole because “a little power can turn a man into a monster”.The appeal of law and order discipline and the power involved in it is at the heart of Jewell’s characterization (in one of the examples of how the film travels with ease at ambiguity the little we see of Jewell as a man with power confirms that he would become an asshole). Before all else, he is the man who wants to be law enforcement agent for whom protecting and serving is seen as the only possible channeling of his vocation.

If the film is the story of how Hauser’s demeanor changes over its drama, this is because as critic Nick Pinkerton very well put it, this is a story of an apostasy, of a man who finds himself betrayed and persecuted by his religion, in this case, the ideology of American law and order.The climax of the film will not be Jewell’s receiving an assurance that he is free of charge, but the moment when Hauser finally breaks his decorum before the law and is able to defend himself against Hamm.

Clint Eastwood will always be identified with Dirty Harry’s image, but it is fair to say that his relationship with police authority has always been quite ambiguous in a mix of respect for dedication to the law and the suspicion that it will always be about to be abused (that said it is worth remembering that the director of the original Dirty Harry, Don Siegel was much more of a conservative anarchist than a propagandist of Nixonian law and order).Richard Jewell like The 15:17 to Paris before it has a lot to say about the appeal of this ideology and it benefits from his gaze being much closer to this universe than that of more progressive filmmakers.There is very powerful material here about the seduction of this belief in order and policing and in its focus on appearances and media coverage it pushes well beyond the literal figure of cops.

Since its debut, the film has been involved in controversy over the portrait of the journalist played by Olivia Wilde, especially the use of the name of a real and deceased person and for a really unfortunate scene in which she goes to bed with Hamm after him give her the hot tip about Jewell being a suspect in the investigations.Wilde plays her as if she were Barbara Stanwyck in a 1930s newspaper film (even including the inevitably moment of moral reckoning) and is especially adept at suggesting a mix of arrivism and condescension.It is a pity that the fairly fair questions about the film’s sexism end up serving as a shield to circumvent what it has to say about media coverage (screenwriter Billy Ray directed Shattered Glass, one of the best films about the press in the 2000s).Her most important scene is the one that introduces herself to Rockwell and says “the cops love me; I tell their story every day”.It is this idea that is at stake in much of Richard Jewell’s press scenes: nothing in the reporting is theoretically wrong, apart from the fact that it is a journalism that serves as a press-release for the authorities.It is a logic that dominates police coverage everywhere and it is a harmful, not to say criminal one.Richard Jewell is also a film about how and which stories we tell (including Eastwood’s own decision to film this story of persecution and not the one about the far-right terrorist who committed the attack).These are choices that are made all the time and that in the news media tend to favor the official sources and the narratives they prefer, which in the police beat has life and death consequences especially for the more marginalized.

In addition to its bad taste, this image of the FBI in bed with the mainstream press has a strong appeal for Trumpian paranoid fantasies.It is worth to notice that the film received much less political controversy here in Brazil, mainly because this paranoid idea of ​​proximity between police and the mainstream media finds a lot of echo among progressive Brazilian voices (a friend even joked that Eastwood had made the first genuinely Free Lula film).It is not a question of foolishly comparing the similarities of sides and speeches, but observing the limits of politically discussing films only through party identity bias, especially in a scenario of real or symbolic bi-partisanship.It is good to remember that more than 20 years ago, Eastwood had made another Republican paranoid fantasy when just before the Monica Lewisnky scandal he imagined himself as the thief who witnessed the American president murdering a lover in Absolute Power.That film had a lot to say about fatherhood and responsibility regardless binarity of period’s political scene and Richard Jewell, who could easily be called Absolute Power, has a lot to say about our perceptions and fascination with power.And in any case the film is politically much closer to the libertarianism of Rockwell’s character, probably the closest to a self-portrait that Eastwood allowed himself in a film in which he does not deal with his own image.

This idea is also relevant to the psychosexual aspects of Jewell’s character study, the aggressive sexuality of Hamm and Wilde contrasting with the figure of Hauser as a man who, upon receiving the news of his absolution, does little more than look with desire at a donut. In Richard Jewell’s world, class condescension and assertive sexuality go hand in hand because power disparity is often expressed through desire. The images of power that Jewell so desires are also images of sexual authority. Hamm is a great casting choice precisely because he combines a mix of maturity and sexual potency with the idea of ​​authority and has a comedian spirit that knows how to find the gaps in it to poke fun at them. It is not for nothing that most of Richard Jewell’s midsection deals with how Jewell submits to the authorities, the way the ideology of law and order to which he submits suggests a complete surrender to power and this a movie quite able to recognize how there is a sexual subtext in the way that belief in obeying law and order is sold. Jewell’s martyrdom is precisely a martyrdom of being at the mercy of these powerful men, which passes through his image of a man without qualities as far as society perceives. The power of the film is directly linked to the way Hauser gives a body to these contradictions, to how his demeanor weakens until he finds a resistant reassertion throughout the process. The story of a trial, but one that reclaims the perceptation of the body through cinema’s gaze and not the authorities.

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