A long time has passed since Clint Eastwood directed a movie that wasn’t ostensibly about the quiet, undersung heroes of the American fabric. It’s been nearly a decade since he directed a film that wasn’t, in some way, inspired by true events. (That would be the forgettable 2010 supernatural drama Hereafter.) In the intervening years, Eastwood has directed films about war heroes, savior pilots, a trio of young men stopping a horrific attack from occurring overseas, and now another story of a common hero beleaguered by bureaucracy. Richard Jewell focuses on a man whose heroism was quickly flipped into villainy by a scornful government and media, yet it’s only the characters on the sideline who are of any dramatic interest.
Jewell, played by Paul Walter Hauser, all but swears by law enforcement. With the exception of a couple scenes, the bulk of the film takes place in the summer of 1996 in Georgia where Jewell first serves as campus security at a local college and then as security at a Summer Olympics event that turns deadly. Jewell, an overzealous would-be police officer, spots a suspicious backpack that does indeed turn out to be a pipe bomb which detonates soon after. Initially, Jewell is treated as a hero for saving even a few lives due to his quick thinking, but the FBI and the media (personified by a selfish agent played by Jon Hamm and an uncouth journalist played by Olivia Wilde) essentially conspire to treat him as the sole suspect in spite of a lack of evidence. All they have is that Jewell’s personality is a little off-kilter. Fortunately for Jewell, his lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) is tenacious and unwilling to let his client get swallowed up.
As I watched Richard Jewell, I couldn’t help but think of my fellow critic and podcast co-host Scott Renshaw, who often likes to point out, in varying situations, that two opposing things can be true. For instance, Richard Jewell, who was revealed to have been arrested in the past for impersonating a cop and was booted off a Georgia county’s police force, can both be a strange, sometimes oddly childlike and off-putting man, and he can also clearly be innocent of the Olympic bombing. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray, to their credit, never shy away from emphasizing that Jewell was kind of odd. His unwillingness for most of the film’s running time to get mad at the unfair treatment he receives from the FBI, as well as his servant-like fealty to them, is something the film doesn’t have to depict, but it still does. (One of the few moments of levity comes when Watson instructs Richard to not talk to the feds during a search of his mother’s apartment, and Richard subsequently tries to be obsequious and helpful, to his lawyer’s consternation.)
The problem with Richard Jewell the movie is perhaps inherent in the title. As the film is inspired by a lengthy Vanity Fair profile on the man from 1997, after he had been fully exonerated (but before the real bomber had confessed to his crimes), this movie is squarely focused on Richard Jewell much to the detriment of the opposing forces to his life. This film’s depiction of the government and the media is troubling specifically because it uses those avatars played by Hamm and Wilde as full-on representatives of each major group. Hamm arguably comes off a little better — his FBI agent is dripping with condescension towards Richard, who wants to very badly be seen as an equal to such government officials.
Wilde, playing real-life journalist Kathy Scruggs, has no such luck. Her first scene, in the newsroom of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is played to the back row of an invisible theater, as she shouts, flips both middle fingers for no reason at her colleagues, and all but looks at the camera and says, “I am the bad guy in this movie.” In real life, the media as a whole can be troubling, but also a valuable source of information. (Two things, you see, can be true.) In this movie, the media is basically a mustache-twirling villain with no hint of remorse or interest in the lives affected by false reporting. It is especially, cruelly ironic that the real Scruggs passed away in 2001, and cannot speak out against this film’s portrayal of her personality.
The bright spot in Richard Jewell is, unsurprisingly, Sam Rockwell, whose innate, wily charm goes a long way. He plays the bulldog of a lawyer who gets to be as angry at the system as Richard ought to be. Hauser, seen recently in I, Tonya and BlackkKlansman, does a fine job of disappearing into the role of Richard Jewell. It’s also a wise move for a less recognizable actor play the title character, thus heightening the methodical reality of the story. (Jonah Hill, credited as a producer, was the first choice to play the character when this project was in development.)
But Richard Jewell the film doesn’t do much beyond visualizing that Vanity Fair profile. (Again to the film’s mild credit, if you read that profile — and you can, right now — you’ll find that the script mostly sticks to the story Jewell was telling back in the ‘90s, down to the FBI fooling him into talking by saying they wanted to use him in a training video.) It’s not that the story of Richard Jewell shouldn’t be told. That story has been told, in the aforementioned profile. His initial heroism and eventual exoneration are matters of public record. A filmic depiction of that public record only serves to emphasize that not every written story is inherently cinematic.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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