Why Richard Jewell Now?

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In my last blog, I presented a semiotic interpretation explaining how the movie Ford vs. Ferrari reflects a larger cultural signification that goes well beyond the history of Formula 1 racecars and their driver/designers. I wish to do something like that in this analysis by looking at the current release of Clint Eastwood's biopic Richard Jewell, a film that, on the face of it, would appear to focus on a rather unlikely subject for mass-market cinematic appeal. But, as we will see, the time is just as ripe for Richard Jewell as it is for Ford vs. Ferrari, and what the two movies have in common says a great deal about the current state of American consciousness.


To begin, then, when I first started seeing promotional billboards for Richard Jewell while driving to work, I had no idea who Richard Jewell was and why there should be a movie about him. It isn't that I have forgotten the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, nor Jewell's ordeal when he went practically overnight from hero to suspect; I simply hadn't remembered the name. And I’m probably not alone in that.


But this is what makes the appearance of this film so semiotically interesting. Biopics are usually about household names, and "Richard Jewell" is not exactly a household name. We can (as I do), deeply sympathize for what he had to go through, but his experience doesn't rise to the historical level of, say, the infamous railroading of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. So why, I wondered, was this film made at all? Who was its intended audience?


A clue to the matter can be found in a description of the movie that appears on the main page when you perform a Google search on Richard Jewell. Here's what I've read: "American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist."


Note the emphasis in this plot description on "journalists and the press," which ignores the role of the FBI, whose leaks brought Jewell into the glare of the public spotlight in the first place. Note also how the movie has already raised a good deal of controversy for the way that it treats the Atlantic Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, who first broke the story. Put it all together and an explanation for what Richard Jewell semiotically signifies begins to emerge.


For Richard Jewell tells the story of an ordinary lower-middle-class man who was nearly destroyed by the actions of what are widely regarded as "media elites" by those who comprise the current populist political movement in America. Such a movie is tailor-made for such viewers, who will identify with the "ordinary Joe" figure of Richard Jewell and see in his suffering a proof of their suspicions. And it may be no accident that the release of the film was timed for the run up to a presidential election that will pit a populist favorite against the "elites" that they fear.


These same viewers, on a more positive but related note, tend to regard people like Carroll Shelby as cultural heroes and identify with them. Muscle cars, NASCAR, automobiles cherished as signs of freedom and prosperity: all these phenomena are touchstones for an America where Shelby's triumph over the elites at Ferrari are the dream version of Richard Jewell's personal nightmare. Ford vs. Farrari, one might say, is simply the sunny inverse of Richard Jewell.


Further evidence for my interpretation lies in the fact that Clint Eastwood made the movie. This is not an attack on Eastwood: my point is that his films particularly appeal to populist audiences (consider the success of Sully, and, more strikingly, American Sniper). Please also note that I am not saying that making movies with populist appeal is a bad thing. After all, Michael Moore has made a career out of his own sort of populist vision, albeit one that is diametrically opposed to the kind of populists I am writing about here. The key point to keep in mind when teaching cultural semiotics is that semiotic analyses are not political judgments. They simply try to explain what things mean.

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1608127 by YazanMRihan, used under Pixabay License

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.