The Richard Jewell hot takes are garbage. And: the time I got polygraphed by the feds

The lead story on Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, released today, should be “Paul Walter Hauser gives breakthrough lead performance.” He’s amazing.

The actual lead story is infuriating: “Eastwood smears journalist by depicting her sleeping with an FBI agent for a tip.”

This is the primary hot take, and then there’s the secondary hot take: this is a right wing persecution fantasy straight from the heart of Trumpland. I just saw the movie and I can tell you with my highest level of confidence that both takes are hot garbage.

The primary hot take is more straightforward to dispense with.  Let’s be clear that the movie absolutely savages Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Kathy Scruggs. It savages her because she wrote and the newspaper printed a rushed, irresponsible story implicating Richard Jewell as a suspect in the bombing, when in fact he had discovered the bomb and saved lives. We have seen many, many examples of inadequately corroborated stories being published the last few years and reinforcing Trump’s “Fake News” narrative by in fact being fake news. We will get to the Trump issue below; suffice to say for now that I think that the journalist who wrote the story implicating Richard Jewell and the newspaper that printed it ought to be a fair target for critique.

But people aren’t mad that the movie savages her reputation as a journalist, they are mad that it suggests that she fucked Don Draper. The pearl-clutching horror is that a female journalist is depicted as sleeping with an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm in order to extract a tip. Seriously, this is what people are worried about: not whether she in fact irresponsibly published a story that put an innocent person through hell, but rather whether or not she fucked Don Draper for a tip.

In any case, this is not what happens in the movie! Reading it this way is willful bad faith. Very plainly, the two characters are depicted in a previous scene as already having a sexual relationship (or at least a flirtatious relationship that’s clearly on a sexual trajectory). Scruggs is depicted as playing up her thirst for information in a joking way as part of their flirtation. When she actually approaches him in the relevant scene, she does offer to have sex with him for a tip, but he clearly interprets her as joking. He gives her the tip, and when she suggests that they go have sex he indicates that he didn’t think she was serious and that sex isn’t necessary. She then indicates that she is actively interested in having sex with him.

Olivia Wilde herself has confirmed this interpretation in tweets today:

Here I want to ask the hot take folks: why is no one indignant about the reputation of the FBI agent? Isn’t it at least as bad to leak information for sex as it is to trade sex for information? (Though, again, I don’t even think the movie is depicting either thing as happening!) So, why is no one saying, “how dare Clint Eastwood smear the reputation of the FBI agent?”

I have a couple diagnoses. The first is ugly: implicit slut shaming. The hot takes that are so outraged by the way Scruggs is depicted are essentially slut shaming the fictionalized version of her. Why is it so horrible to be depicted as horny for Don Draper?

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The second is that this really isn’t about accuracy of biographical depiction or the sanctity of a person’s legacy, this is about tribalist flag waving. Ever since Eastwood’s Obama chair debacle, hipster critics and large swathes of the left have (very, very ignorantly) dismissed him as a right wing simpleton. I’ll get to that in a minute.

None of these people cared whether the depiction of Cheney in Vice was accurate and it’s highly unlikely they cared whether Ron Howard’s repugnant depiction of Max Baer in Cinderella Man was accurate. Nah, this is about sacrosanct idealization of journalists in the age of Trump, and it’s about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution exploiting the #metoo zeitgeist to divert attention from how bad they look in this movie.

So about that second hot take… is this a Trumpist tale of persecution by the media and FBI? Fuck no, it’s not. For one thing there is absolutely not a whiff of the “deep state.” But does it take up Trump’s Fake News narrative?

One could be excused for thinking such a thing if and only if one hasn’t seen Eastwood’s other movies (and if one hasn’t seen them I really don’t think one is qualified to sound off on this). Looking at the artistic context that Richard Jewell emerges from paints a clear picture. The movie is highly continuous with themes from previous works dating long, long before the age of Trump. I could write a dissertation on this topic but I will be as brief as possible and only discuss the most directly relevant examples:

Flags of Our Fathers (2006) unravels the mythology surrounding the famous photograph from Iwo Jima and the way that the government and media conspired to promote a false narrative while leaving the actual veterans without needed care and support.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is a movie in Japanese that sympathetically depicts the Japanese side of the battle. Eastwood said that he thought if was going to make a movie about the American side he should make a movie about the other side as well. (I know, such a dire jingoist!)

J. Edgar (2011) tells the story of the founding of the FBI and the way Hoover ruled it with an iron fist for decades, often exploiting its apparatus for his personal political aims. It is highly critical of the way that the FBI tries to sell itself to the pubic by glamorizing its activities and gaming the media. It is also highly critical of the FBI’s disregard for privacy and the Fourth Amendment

Sully (2016) depicts the bureaucratic nightmare that Sully was caught up in after the Miracle on the Hudson. It’s a kind of Rashomon riff that examines the sort of automatic, reflexive responses that actually saved the day and their incommensurability with bureaucratic codes and procedures, but also calls into question the capacity of individuals to assess their ability to achieve such responses.

The Mule (2018) is about a lot of things, but first and foremost it’s about white privilege and the way that an old white guy in a pickup truck is invisible to law enforcement. The movie very confrontationally depicts police mistreating nonwhite people and reveals a clear and nuanced understanding of the difference between the way that white people and nonwhite people experience interactions with the police.

It is against this backdrop that we must interpret Richard Jewell. Does that seem like a progression that would lead naturally to Trumpist flag waving? Does it suggest that Clint Eastwood is harboring a distinct white dude persecution complex? No!

The character of Richard Jewell is a schlub who wants to be a cop. He loves guns and belongs to the NRA. He’s a virgin and lives with his mom. Keeping in mind that Eastwood made a movie about the way that police disproportionately target minorities *LAST YEAR*, the natural thought is that he’s now turning to the alt-right basement dwellers and saying “it can happen to you, too. maybe you shouldn’t be so dismissive of police accountability movements.”

It seems dead obvious to me that this is what Clint is up to. He pokes pretty good fun at Jewell, revealing that he’s not afraid to laugh at a deplorable. But Eastwood is above all else a humanist, and so many of his films over the years have been about outsiders making connections in unusual circumstances (e.g., Honkey Tonk Man, A Perfect World). That’s also where he ends up with this material. He finds sympathy for Jewell: a fat guy who lives with his mom, who no one takes seriously and who everyone bullies and calls mean names. Of all people, the one character other than his mom who is genuinely decent to Jewell is Sam Rockwell’s back-alley lawyer, who struggles with Jewell’s difficult personality but comes to value his kindness and sincerity. This element is sweet and moving and very in line with Clint’s previous work. In perhaps the most telling moment in the entire film, when Rockwell learns that Jewell is moving on to a different job in hopes of eventually becoming a cop, he gifts him a crisp $100 in exchange for a promise: “Don’t become an asshole.”

Back to the big picture and the point about flag waving: if there is such a thing as Trump derangement syndrome, it is surely adopting the posture that anything that Trump attacks should be immune to attack. Trump has attacked the FBI and the media. I never thought I’d see the day when leftists would get all defensive because Clint Eastwood made a movie critiquing the FBI and media, but here we are. You can definitely leave me out of that shit. The FBI is not our friend, and although not ALL journalists are like Scruggs, it should certainly be fair game to depict the media harshly (I mean Nightcrawler? No rage there?).

And now to live up to my promise from the title: yes, I got polygraphed by the Feds. This experience certainly helped me relate to Richard Jewell, though it was a very minor incident by comparison.

I was in grad school in Princeton, NJ and I had just been grocery shopping at a very large, popular grocery store. I was making salsa, and I was aghast to slice into a tomato and find a frickin’ sewing needle. I immediately emailed the grad student listserve, knowing that most people shop at the same grocery store: “Yo double check your produce for sewing needles!” Within thirty seconds I got a response from a friend living in Philly: “holy shit call the police right this minute, there have been a string of food tampering incidents like this around here, but I don’t think anything has been reported in Jersey. This is a really big deal.”

So, I called the police and I called the store. Neither cared. The store offered me a refund for the tomato. My partner at the time had a friend whose mom worked for the FDA. We called her and got the number for the local FDA and called them. No one cared. We threw the needle away. The next morning I got a call from the store asking me to bring the needle in for investigation. They gave me 50 bucks and apologized. We also got an unexpected call telling us that a family friend’s mother had died. We drove straight down to the Baltimore area to console the friend and attend the funeral. Late that night I got a call from special agents from the FDA. They wanted to talk to me ASAP. I told them I was in Baltimore and they’d have to wait till I got back. They said they were driving down there right away and that they would be at my doorstep at 6am.

Very long story short: they pressured me to come with them to a field office. They threatened that they would make my life difficult if I refused. I got my partner to follow us with a separate car so I would have the option to leave, but they said that she could only stay on the premises if she agreed to be interviewed. Knowing what I know now, I would have lawyered up. But at the time my anti-authoritarianism was less developed and I hadn’t thought through what to do in such a situation. Knowing that I had nothing to hide, I agreed to be interviewed (as did my partner) and I answered all their questions honestly. They made it very clear that I was the primary suspect. They said that the person who reported the tampering is the culprit 97% of the time. They said they were the ones who busted the woman who lied about finding a finger in her Wendy’s chili. They repeatedly said that if I lie to them I would be going to jail that very day.  Eventually, they busted out the polygraph. They said that agreeing to take it would make my life a lot easier, and that if I refused they would make things as hard as possible for me going forward. I agreed. It was a farce. They kept asking me things like “have you ever lied to avoid trouble?” and I was like “I’m sure I have.” “When?” “I don’t know” “well in order to take anything you say seriously we need you to tell us that you’re not a rotten liar.” “I’m not a rotten liar.” “but have you ever lied to avoid trouble?” “I’m sure I have.” “When?” and so on. I eventually got them to rephrase the question as “Do you specifically remember at this very moment any occasions when you lied to avoid trouble other than that one time you lied to your mom about leaving the gate open?’ This version I was able to say “no” to and pass the test.

I walked away from this experience unscathed, but it gave Jewell’s speech special power for me when he asked the FBI agents (to paraphrase), “do you really think the next security guard is going to report what they find after seeing what happened to me?”  This is exactly how I felt after my experience. “Well, that teaches me to report something.” And that was the last time I ever reported anything.

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