Ace in the Hole

This week marks the premiere of Clint Eastwood's latest directorial outing: Richard Jewell claims to tell the truth about the lowly security guard who was wrongly overhauled — in the span of a few deadlines and headlines — from hero to terrorist following the Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing.

"Claims" because we should be wary of "based on a true story" cinema, even if the director is a national treasure and the story bolsters our justifiable prejudices — in this case, against the manipulative elite media. Because while Richard Jewell was blameless, Richard Jewell may not be — but more on that later...

We can argue, in hindsight, whether or not Woodward and Bernstein's investigation into what, in world-historical terms, most closely resembles a bungled frat boy prank against a rival house, ultimately proved Good for the Nation. What's indisputable is the profound harm created by the post-Watergate deification of journalists. Ever-metastasizing "J-schools" spat out tens of thousands of earnest-yet-craven graduates who viewed reportage as a more glamorous, macho species of social work. They'd change the world rather than merely write about it, and if they had to lie a little, or a lot. Well, it was For a Good Cause (and, not incidentally, the potent promise of a Pulitzer Prize.)

Despite being a Watergate baby with writerly ambitions and the talent to match, the only Pulitzers I've ever striven to collect are Lilly's shifts. (I was married in one). But don't think the obsession with winning that prestigious award, at whatever cost, was, like so many Very Bad Things, sired in the godawful 1970s (a decade that was essentially still the also-toxic 1960s, except with a rotten hangover and a lost wallet.)

A forgivable mistake though, because a masterful movie about an amoral reporter's sick quest to snag American journalism's highest honor came, then rapidly went, in 1951, forgotten until its resurrection by TCM a decade ago. Bizarre, considering that the movie stars Kirk Douglas and was directed by Billy Wilder, who called it "the best picture I ever made."

This would be the ingeniously titled Ace in the Hole.

Sure, reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is between jobs again, but think about it: you can only keep getting fired if you keep getting hired. Tatum may be boozy, reckless and brash, but he's also a charismatic hustler with a portfolio of bylines in big city papers. Having driven as far as his busted car could take him, Tatum lands a beat at a tiny Albuquerque paper by boasting — to the belt-and-suspenders old editor who sits beneath a homely sampler stitched with the words "TELL THE TRUTH" — that he's a world class liar:

Now, none of this is particularly novel: that line about "biting a dog if I have to" was uttered by another reporter character over 20 years earlier in Mystery of the Wax Museum. And just before that, The Front Page debuted as an instant classic, popularizing the image of newspapermen (and women, when restaged as His Girl Friday) as selfish, cynical ruthless wisecrackers.

But all that streetwise, anything-for-a-story chatter is played for screwball laughs in those older productions; it's the hard but very thin shell concealing a big, sweet, gooey treat. Everything turns out fine in the end. No harm done.

Not in Ace in the Hole.

Tatum stumbles upon the story of a lifetime: filling station owner Leo Minosa is trapped in an old silver mine, where he'd been digging for "Indian" artifacts to hawk as tourist souvenirs. And hadn't (real life) reporter William Burke Miller landed a Pulitzer for covering a similar tragedy in 1925? Tatum learns that digging Leo out will be fairly easy — but where's the story in that? Instead, Tatum manipulates events to drag out Leo's rescue, and turn it into a national obsession. A veritable circus springs up around the mountain — the movie's alternative title is The Big Carnival — complete with amusement park rides courtesy of (I kid you not) "The Great S&M Amusement Corporation," ghoulish picnicking families and of course, souvenirs.

That touch likely sealed Ace in the Hole's fate with audiences: It's one thing to pay good money to savor the venality and eventual comeuppance of reporters, sheriffs and other big shots, but quite another to have the morbid spectacle-seeking penchant of ordinary men or women (Princess Diana's funeral, anyone?) shoved in your own face along with your handful of popcorn.

Tatum repeatedly sells Leo's saga to his timid editor as a "human interest story," but of course, the only human he has any interest in is himself. Leo is Tatum's ticket out of Albuquerque, dead or alive.

In real life, Richard Jewell was the trapped man, and a flawed one, too. To many modern viewers, Leo's mercenary appetite for sacred native artifacts makes him no more sympathetic than Jewell was to journalists and Jay Leno, who mocked their prey as a fat Southern rube who still lived with his mother. Jewell was eventually "rescued," but what of it? I'll never forget Dennis Prager opining on the air in 2007 that the abuse Jewell endured had surely abetted his early death, at aged 44. (The New York Times called him a "hero" — in the headline of his obituary.)

I got goosebumps watching the Richard Jewell trailer, and vowed I'd make the rare move of leaving my house to see it in theatres.

Then I read this:

...the accuracy of the onscreen representation of one of the film's characters, journalist Kathy Scruggs, is being called into question. (...)

The journalist, portrayed as loud, brash and hunting for "something crimey going on anywhere," offers to sleep with FBI agent Tom Shaw (played by Jon Hamm) in exchange for information about the investigation. (...)

According to Kevin Riley, the current editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there is no evidence that this transaction ever happened. Raising additional concern, says Riley, is the reality that Scruggs is not able to provide her own account of the events and defend herself in light of the film's narrative positioning. Scruggs died in 2001 of an overdose of prescription drugs.

So: Clint Eastwood is vindicating one slandered person by... slandering another — who happens to be conveniently dead?

Yeah, but don't get so uptight about it, you guys.

It's just a movie.

It's just a story.

It's all For a Good Cause...

Ace in the Hole is available via Amazon Prime and YouTube Movies, airs regularly on TCM, and was released in 2K restoration by Criterion in 2007.

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