Clint Eastwood‘s late career filmography has covered all manner of topics, but a steady thread throughout has been his championing of fiercely individual heroes forced into conflict. That it often comes with not so subtle critiques of authority and liberal ideals is no mistake as Eastwood’s a filmmaker unable to avoid injecting his own beliefs into his projects. To be clear, that’s neither good nor bad in theory, but the execution can sometimes tip too heavily at the expense of the film itself. Seven of his last nine movies have been based on true stories and real people fitting the mold in one way or the other, from the relative highs of American Sniper (2014) to the abysmal lows of The 15:17 to Paris (2018), and his latest once again sees Eastwood taking jabs in defense of “true” Americans. Richard Jewell is ultimately middling-range entertainment delivered flatly, but it’s highlighted by some memorable performances and one undeniable truth involving the dangers of rushing to judgment.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) doesn’t seem destined to hold any given job for very long. He’s a stickler for the rules, he’s socially awkward, and his desperate need for affirmation and respect leaves some people cold, but he enters the history books when his latest job change sees him working security for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Jewell notices an unattended backpack beneath a bench, and while the real cops discount it he persists until a bomb squad technician discovers it actually contains an explosive device. The bomb goes off, killing two and injuring over a hundred, and the realization that Jewell’s actions saved numerous lives turns him into an immediate hero. Just as quickly, though, a lead FBI agent (Jon Hamm) and a hungry reporter (Olivia Wilde) zero in on him as the lead suspect turning Jewell’s life — and public opinion — upside down.
There’s no denying the terrifying weight of Richard Jewell‘s cautionary tale as the both the government and the media are massively powerful forces, and to have their combined energy focused on an innocent man is a terrifying prospect. The desire to close a case or sell newspapers has led both parties down the path of false convictions before and will most assuredly do so again, but few took over the national stage as loudly as Jewell’s brush with infamy. Eastwood tells the story with a muted anger, though, in a film that feels flat from its very first scenes to its inexplicably dull finale. The facts (as presented) speak for themselves, and the film makes no real attempt to amplify them.
Jewell is an avid gun collector with knowledge about bombs, and he’s prone to proclaiming that his security work makes him “law enforcement too,” just like the real cops and federal agents. Living with his mother (Kathy Bates) doesn’t help and adds to the perceived image of a lone bomber, but that’s the extent of the case against him. He’s being railroaded by everyone but his mom and his lawyer (Sam Rockwell) — a man whose office is adorned with a poster proclaiming “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” — and with Hamm and Wilde as the faces of Hauser’s oppressors, the film lays out a clear case of an everyday American guy with financial stress, a gun rack, bad taste in music, and some serious weight issues being crushed by beautiful people without a worry in the world.
The script (by Billy Ray, adapted from a Marie Brenner article) finds limited highs after the dramatic bombing sequence, and it instead rests that responsibility on a narrative that at times feels as meandering as the FBI investigation was. We know Jewell is innocent as both history and the film have told us so, but it still feels compelled to show us two characters realizing that — in the exact same way. It’s a weak point both times too as each character, separately, walks from the bomb site to the phone booth where the bomber’s call was made only to realize Jewell couldn’t have possibly done it. They’re shocked, shocked I say, even though this in no way proves the man’s innocence as an accomplice could easily have placed the call. It’s hokey, dramatic, and exactly the kind of beat Eastwood loves.
It’s an important story told poorly, but it’s salvaged to some degree by engaging and entertaining performances. Hauser in particular brings an “aw shucks” mentality that, while exaggerated at times, makes Jewell a sincere underdog who we hate to see kicked around. A late scene in a diner opposite Rockwell is as close as the film gets to an emotional high point, and it’s due entirely to Hauser. Rockwell, meanwhile, is all swagger, and it works well for both laughs and the encouragement that comes from seeing the little guy stand up to Goliath and win. Others including Bates, Hamm, and Wilde feel dialed up at times too, but the results there are a bit more hit and miss.
Wilde, in particular, is saddled with portraying a real person, the now deceased Kathy Scruggs, while Hamm and his constipated expressions are representing a fictional amalgamation. Her performance is fun and chaotic, but she shifts on a dime from a headline-chasing reporter into a Jewell fan with no room for calm contemplation in between. As bad as that lack of connective tissue in her arc is, though, the film also quite possibly does Scruggs dirty by suggesting she had sex with sources for information and wasn’t a very good writer. That there’s been dispute over the film’s portrayal of the real-life reporter is no small thing as Eastwood’s intent here is both a celebration of Jewell and a slam against the idea of “fake news” that’s so popular with a certain segment of society.
Richard Jewell’s story is one worth telling, and in an ideal world it’s the kind of transgression against a hero that would never happen again. As a film, though, Richard Jewell is barely better than the Wikipedia page describing the plot, and it’s strictly the performances that make up the difference.