Review of the Film: Richard Jewell

Jewell

I went into this movie the same way I did Argo.  I remembered bits and pieces of the actual events, but not the full story.  I came out the same way as well, loving this film.

This is the story of Richard Jewell, a security guard who stumbled across a suspicious package at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and whose actions saved dozens of lives. His character is brilliantly portrayed in the film by Paul Walter Hauser.  His character goes from national hero to a suspect in a matter of days.

On the surface, this film is about how the media and the FBI conspired against an innocent man, ruining his life to fit their agenda. The media is properly portrayed as corrupt; sleeping with the FBI to obtained leaked information. The FBI is show to bend and break all of their rules in pursuit of bringing down Richard Jewell.

Think on that for a moment…because the parallels between this case and current events are both deliberate and eerie at the same time.  In an era of text messages, weekly leaks to the media, secret and potentially corrupt FISA courts; the story of Richard Jewell is a milestone and a warning to all of us.  Perhaps that is why this film resonated so strongly with me.

Note:  In real life, reporter Kathy Scruggs did not sleep with her FBI informant – it is one of the few elements of the film that are embellished. While some have thrown the film under the bus for this, it is a scene that is a metaphor, and I get it. It always strikes me as odd when Hollywood gets upset with some movies for not being accurate, and praises others for the same thing.  Could it be because Clint Eastwood is a proud conservative?

Jewell is almost childlike as portrayed in the film.  He wants to help the FBI, even when they are working against him.  Each time his character talks you cringe at what he might say.  You find yourself torn with this character because you can see what he is up against, but he simply refuses to remove the FBI from its pedestal in his heart.  The Bureau tries to turn his friends against him and when he doesn’t fit their profile, they simply charge forward with new theories that border on ridiculous.

The media is seen in the film as jackals, if not worse.  The reporter character does have her moment of redemption, but it does not give Richard Jewell back what was taken from him.  Kathy Bates’ performance as his mother is outstanding and reminded me of my own mother in far too many aspects. It says a great deal that the casting of this film was as good as it was.

The writers and directors have subtly left you wondering about big government and the forces it can bring to bear against people.  Don’t get me wrong, I share information with the FBI on cases I write about. I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that the FBI as a whole is bad.  Some bad agents and administrators though can tarnish the entirety of the whole organization.  We see that here with the lead investigator in the film, who refuses to admit that Jewell had nothing to do with the bombing.

Nor is there any apologies in this film…from the media or the FBI.  That too is poignant.  When everyone believes they are doing the right thing with the wrong consequences, no one is willing to step up and say, “What we did was wrong.”  The closest we get is the media character in the film.

As a reader, writer, and watcher – I love underdog stories.  The film Richard Jewell is one of those, the epitome of an underdog.  The odds are against the lone hero, yet in the end, the hero prevails. If you cannot enjoy that kind of story, don’t watch this film.

I noticed that the theater was mostly filled with people near my age, which is sad. I think a lot of younger people need to see a movie like this so that they can frame current events against it.

This is a sobering film, one that has dramatic ups and downs.  It leaves you thinking, wondering, and in my case, worrying.  Out of this year’s crop of films, Avengers Endgame ranks first, Richard Jewell is number two.  While I am not sure I will buy a copy and re-watch it, I am glad that I did see it and you should too.  I give it a solid five out of five stars.

Tantamount Podcast Episode Three Supplemental Material

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This material augments the information provided in the podcast Tantamount about Washington DC’s serial killer, The Freeway Phantom. Obviously we encourage you to listen to the episode. Here’s a link to this episode:  Tantamount Catch me if you can! 

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The Freeway Phantom finishes his murder spree with the deaths of Brenda Woodard, Diane Williams, and, we learn, Teara Ann Bryant.  The FBI and some officers who worked the case believe Teara was part of the Freeway Phantom’s list of victims, while the Washington MPD and Prince George’s County Police do not.  If not, the question remains, who killed Teara Ann Bryant?

Woodard Body Found
Where Brenda’s Body was found
Woodard Wig
Brenda’s wig, tossed there by the killer

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the final killings was the note left on the body of Brenda Woodard.  Written in her own hand, at the order of his killer, the Freeway Phantom used the note to taunt authorities.

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The note left by the killer on Brenda’s body
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Diane Williams
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Brenda Woodard 
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Teara Ann Bryant – Our research shows that she too was a victim of the Freeway Phantom

The murders stop with the death of Ms. Bryant…leaving us all to wonder why?  Was the killer jailed, dead, or had he moved on?

If you want to know more, subscribe to our podcast or read our book:  Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer.

Review of the Netflix Series – The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

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A friend of mine recommended I watch this series about the disappearance of this young three-year-old in Portugal in 2007.  I have to admit, I went in with prejudice. Like most of us, I was fed a steady stream of news reports about Madeleine’s disappearance and it felt to me like the parents were somehow involved.

The series reduced that feeling, but there are some things that still don’t add up for me.  The fact that the series made me question my preconceived notion is a good sign.

The series is, well, slow. It is plodding along, without a sense of tempo or care for the audience.  Having said that, I think it does a very good job of layout out the events.  There are a lot of blind allies the producers take you down.  The whole human trafficking angle is intriguing, but at the same time, lacks any substance…at least from what I saw. Theories are thrown at the wall to see what will stick, which is not a good approach to such a series.

Adding to this were the cast of characters that latched onto the case.  Psychics, dog handlers, private investigators…some seeming to insert themselves into the case for the publicity.  It is a cautionary tale for anyone that loses a loved one in the same manner…be wary of the company you keep.

The authorities were in over their heads from the start of the case.  They fingered people, for legitimate reasons in their minds, but mismanaged every aspect of the investigation.  There is a bombshell (of sorts) about the lead investigator that pops in the middle of the series, something that I was surprised about.

Did I soften my feeling about the parents as suspects?  Yes.  But some of their actions still raise big eyebrows for me.  Their attempt to get their dinner guests to align on their stories, for example, made little sense.  As a parent, I wouldn’t have left my kids in that situation – but I am also not from their culture nor was I there.  Seeds of doubt remain with me.

I give this about a 3.5 out of 5 stars.  It could have been reduced to three or four episodes easily, and would have been more enjoyable.  The constant drone shots of the beach and the city made this far too many episodes long.

Review of Alien – The RPG – Free League Publishing

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Yeah, that’s gonna leave a mark…

At Gen Con this year I came across Free League’s booth and they were handing out cards for a pre-purchase of their Alien RPG.  Aliens is one of my favorite movies so I opted in.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but thought it might be fun to see what they could do with a new Aliens RPG (remember, there was one many years ago.)

What shocked me the most was that they delivered, both digitally and hard copy – pretty much on time.  I was also deeply impressed with the physical quality of the materials. If this book were just the text, it would be easily half this size.  The rules clock in at 393 pages.

The artwork is worth the bulk.  The paintings are spectacular and really capture the feel of the Alien universe.

I have not run a game yet, but like the format.  There are two modes of play, Cinematic and Campaign.  Cinematic play is refighting the events on LV-426.  They provide the maps of the colonist outpost and enough material to play out what happened to those poor people.  It is one of those play modes that reminded me of Zombicide, you are going to die…it’s a question of when.  Campaign play is more along the lines of a traditional RPG campaign.

The rules are well-written.  There’s not a lot of depth here in terms of skills and career paths, it is a system that relies heavily on role-playing. I was expecting more of a military slant to things, with some details about tracking ammo etc.  This game really concentrates on action over technical detail.

It is a d6 based system, though there is an option for cards to cover initiative and gear (sold separately).  The game mechanics are pretty simple to master.  Combat is straight forward.  They have a pretty good critical injuries table which I liked.  With modernistic firepower, death can come quick with a poor die roll, at least in my trial runs.

The panic system is neat.  Stress and panic play a big role in the combat system, letting the terror build to where your character is incapacitated with fear.  I like this because it plays perfectly with the Alien universe.  I won’t bore you with the details, but it was good, innovative, and simple.

The game covers the core films, including Prometheus, which was useful.  You have big bad corporations, sleazy company men/women, and tough hombres in the Colonial Marines, even vehicles and spaceships.  I will admit, the space combat system is a bit abstract for my tastes, but that is a personal preference.

The biggest hurdle this game faces is not in the book but in how you overcome the fact that players already know about the aliens.  Part of what makes the game pop is that unknown variable, but let’s be honest, we’ve all seen the films.  I would have hoped for some more rules for creating new creatures for players to face, but there’s plenty of room for GM’s Game-Mothers, to get creative on their own.

Overall, I found the book to be outstanding.  Free League has resurrected the Alien RPG and has taken it into some new and fascinating directions. I’ve enjoying reading it, which is hard to say with some RPG’s out there.  It runs around $49 US, which is hefty, but worth it since it comes with a scenario ready to play.

I can’t resist…pick this up…otherwise it’s, “Game over man!”

Review of the True Crime Podcast – Going West

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My wife and I went to Michigan this weekend to help my mother-in-law move.  She likes podcasts so we listened to several, one in particular, Going West.  This review is based on listening to nine episodes, binge-style, on the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes.  They did not ask for this review – it is unsolicited.  Nor do I have any relationship with the podcasters.

My daughter and I started our podcast, Tantamount, and agreed up-front on format, style, and tone.  I’m not a fan of those true crime podcasts where drinking or humor is a big component.  It seems disrespectful to the victims and as an author in the genre, I try and avoid those podcasts.  There are a ton of true crime podcasts out there, and Going West proved to be one of the more entertaining and produced.

The format simple – two narrators taking you on a journey through one crime.  Some are solved, some are not.  The narrators have very professional voices and the production quality is top-notch. What my wife and I liked was that there was not a lot of their theories or wild speculations in the episodes.  They present the facts.  When they do tell you what they are thinking, they call that out so you don’t confuse their comments with the facts in the case.  A lot of podcasters could learn from this technique…I know I did.

There is occasional (rare) swearing, but it is well-placed (and often exactly what I was thinking!)

The mix of cases is well-thought-out.  Their research seems fairly solid too, which is critical. Where there are conflicting accounts of events, they let you know.  That is important, trust me.

Going West has a pleasing conversational tone and is paced well.  Some podcasts are like drinking through a firehose, while others go off on so many tangents that you struggle with following the story.  Going West weaves a story without being formulaic.  Sometimes they start with the crime, sometimes they start with the victim…it makes binging their episodes easy to do.

My wife, who only marginally likes podcasts, said that this is now one of her favorites.  That alone is high praise.

There are a ton of podcasts out there and Going West is one of the best I’ve stumbled across.  Easily a five out of five stars.

Podcast Tantamount Episode Two Supplemental Material – Body Count

 

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In our podcast on the Washington DC serial killer, the Freeway Phantom, we dive into the victims.  I wanted to provide listeners with some additional material to augment the podcast.

One of the more disturbing mishandlings of cases is that of Darlenia Johnson.  Her remains spotted by a motorist along I-295, just 15 feet from where Carol Spinks had been found, but the police didn’t recover her for over a week.  Officers were dispatched, but they drove by, not seeing her, rather than get out of their car.  She remained unattended in the hot July sun for days.

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Darlenia Johnson

Brenda Faye Crockett stands out because the Phantom allowed her to call home while she was his prisoner…twice.  Both times she claimed that a white man had driven her to Virginia and would send her home in a taxi.  On the second call, she asked if her mother saw her.  This is important.  Was the Phantom worried that he had been seen with her in his vehicle?  Did personally know Mrs. Crockett and was afraid that she was sending police after him?

Clearly the references to a “white man” and “Virginia” were deception.  No serial killer would allow his victim to give out actual useful clues to the family and authorities.  If anything, this should have helped investigators narrow their search to not include white suspects or residents in Virginia.  But at the time, the concept of a serial killer was unknown.  You had repeat offenders, but the phrase “serial killer” was years away from these crimes.

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Brenda Crockett.  Her two phone calls home were clearly out of fear on the part of the Phantom.

Nenomoshia Yates was only 12 years old when she was abducted, raped, and strangled by the killer.  She was found the day after her abduction on Route 50 in Prince George’s County Maryland.  She was just 3/10’s of a mile over the border from the District of Columbia.  So had the killer put here there to muddy the investigation by bringing in another agency?  Why not leave her along I-295 as he had his other victims?  What was so different with her or the road that night that compelled him to leave her elsewhere?

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Young Miss Yates.  
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The road where Nenomoshia Yates was found

For those of you that want to know more, you can buy our book Tantamount or you can follow our podcast on Podbean, Spotify, and iTunes.   Episode 2 – Body Count

Kicking off our True Crime Podcast – Tantamount: Season One, Episode One

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So this is the start of our first season of Tantamount – a true crime podcast about our most recent book on the Washington DC Freeway Phantom serial killer.

Here’s some of the links to get to it:

Podbean

Spotify

Coming soon to iTune Podcasts

Victoria, my daughter and co-author, and I have been wanting to get into podcasting for a while.  It seemed a perfect fit with the new book coming out.  I didn’t want to do a short one-shot podcast, but one that allowed us to go beyond the book and really dive into this serial killing spree.

When we write a book, we focus on the facts.  Our goal is to present information, not shove our opinions on the reader.  The podcast lets us talk about what we think and feel, things that wouldn’t play well in a book.

There were some parameters for this effort we felt were important:

  • The podcast had to stand on its own.  You didn’t have to buy or read the book to follow it.
  • We wanted it to be the first of a series.  So season one is on the Freeway Phantom.  We have plans for future seasons that will dive into other cases…some we’ve written about, some that we just are intrigued with.
  • It had to be as professional as we could produce on our own.
  • We wouldn’t launch it unless we had at least two episodes in the queue.  Episode #2 will pop sometime in the next few days.
  • We wanted some links to this blog where we could post some things we didn’t put in the book directly – some source material for those that wanted to explore more about the episode.
  • This first episode is about why we undertook this book, investing two years of our lives into the case. I would love to tell you there is some magical formula we use to determine if we are digging into a crime, but in reality, a lot of it is gut-check-level stuff.

We also start with the first victim – Carol Spinks.  I’ve included copies of her police report here.  It gives you an idea of what our starting point was for this – which wasn’t much.

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Carol Spinks – The First Victim

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I am not an audio editor or expert in podcasting. I spent more time editing than anything else. It is a great learning curve for both Victoria and me.  Please be gentle with your comments.

For my BattleTech fans, yes, I want to do something in that space and have started scripting out my first episode – on Snord’s Irregulars.  So far the working titles include:  Old Fart’s BattleTech, Ammo Dump, and All Systems Not Nominal.

So, please subscribe and share our podcast and if you want more information, get out book!