Synopsis: 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.
Stars: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda
Director: Clint Eastwood
Running Length: 129 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: First off, let me say that I hope by the time I’m 89 years old I can remain as active and involved as Clint Eastwood has. At a time when many of his contemporaries have taken their leave of Hollywood or reduced their profile, Eastwood is still going strong and managing to remain a prolific filmmaker. Not only does he manage to keep making movies, but with a few minor exceptions they are often quite profitable at the box office. So studios are clamoring for his time because he can do a lot with a little and actors want to work with him for his laid-back style and easy-going nature. His time as an actor has made him a rather dependable director, even if he’s not always the most exciting or obvious choice.
Remember last year when The Mule was feared by so many awards pundits that saw it looming at the edges of the holiday release schedule? Eastwood had been known before to swoop in at the last minute and upset a locked-in season…at least that’s what all these podcasters would have you believe. That only happened once, with Million Dollar Baby and ever since then anytime an Eastwood movie quietly sneaks into theaters in late December without screening far in advance everyone gets worried it will be another scenario where the film will open and blow everything else out of the water. It almost happened again with American Sniper, it definitely didn’t happen with The Mule (which was actually kind of interesting in a weird way), and it’s not likely to occur with Richard Jewell…though it’s already created a few waves.
I have to admit that while I was familiar with the name Richard Jewell, I had forgotten the actual details of the events and eventual outcome surrounding the 1996 bombing that occurred in Atlanta during their Summer Olympics. I made a point not to refresh my memory before attending the screening so I could take the movie at narrative face value and look up the nitty gritty details later – otherwise I’d be spending the majority of my time noting the liberties screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) took with the facts of the case. Based in part on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner with some material also culled from an investigative book, Ray appears to be simpatico with Eastwood in his desire to explore the breakdown of due process by the government and news media.
After struggling to maintain a position in local law enforcement, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) was working as a security guard in Centennial Park on July 27, 1996 when he saw a suspicious backpack left unattended. Known for being an overzealous stickler that excites easily, his colleagues and police officers on duty don’t pay much attention until looking closer and finding Jewell’s hunch wasn’t off the mark. An anonymous call into 911 warned of an impending detonation and though Jewell and others try to clear the area as best they can, the bomb goes off to devastating effect.
Hailed as a hero and becoming an overnight minor celebrity, the bright lights turn dark quickly for Jewell when a former employer notifies the FBI of his erratic behavior in the past. When information on Jewell becoming a suspect is leaked by a top agent (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm) to a local news reporter (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) and she in turn runs the story on the front page, it soon becomes national news. While his mother (Kathy Bates, A Home Of Our Own) watches helplessly, Jewell is vilified in the press and hounded by federal agents and it’s only when he calls on Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, Vice) that he starts to find some solid ground to fight back on.
You don’t have to dig too deep into Richard Jewell to see Eastwood passing down a condemnation on the clumsy way this was handled and it’s true that Jewell was done a great disservice. All he ever wanted to do was be in law enforcement and it’s a bit of a cruel joke that he was railroaded with no real purpose. More than anything, Eastwood comes down like a twenty ton anvil on the news media and, in particular, the sensationalist journalism that prints first and asks questions later. It’s a huge problem for Richard Jewell the person and it’s become a huge problem for Richard Jewell the motion picture.
The issue stems from the portrayal of Wilde’s character, Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs. Scruggs is shown to be a wildcat reporter that shows up for work looking hungover and mussed, dressed like Erin Brockovich. Standing in stark contrast to the other mumsy women that work in the office she claims are jealous of her and the stories she gets, Scruggs is later shown trading sex for stories, something her co-workers and family object strongly to. Ray even has her indicate she’s not that good of a writer, imploring a desk reporter to do the majority of the work for her. While Wilde turns in her best performance in years as Scruggs, it’s unfortunate she’s doing it in such a fish eye-d lens of a male gazed upon character. Scruggs was a real person and the various men she rubs up against are fictitious creations serving as stand-in amalgams for others, so it feels a bit shameful to denigrate her by name only, especially considering the real life Scruggs passed away in 2001 and isn’t here to defend herself.
That problematic slice of the film aside, I found myself oddly compelled by Richard Jewell and I think it’s largely due to the lead performances of Hauser and Rockwell. Both are so invested in their roles that for one of the rare times this year I was able to set aside previous roles they’ve played and let them inhabit these characters here and now. It’s easier for Hauser to do that because he’s had less roles but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing some complex work – while he’s done the simpleton act to perfection before there’s a graceful edge he gives Jewell that elevates this above those other roles. Rockwell is getting good at playing fired up and Eastwood gives him a long leash to play, to often pleasing results. Together, the two men share some well-worked scenes that have a real ring of truth.
As is the case with most Eastwood films, the supporting cast is a mixture of faces familiar and new. I still want to go on record and say that Hamm is absolutely 100% in no way a movie star and he demonstrates here again why that is. There’s just a limited range for him to play and even when given a role with some darker edges he can’t quite find the right shade. The real buzz from the movie is with the performance of Bates and while I always like seeing her onscreen, like Laura Dern in Marriage Story this is one of those “It’s fine, I guess” turns that don’t seem that huge of stretch from an actress we already know can do wonders. If anything, I liked Nina Arianda (Stan & Ollie) as Bryant’s no-nonsense secretary more than the rest. Even saddled with a hideous wig and not much meaningful dialogue, she has a presence in every scene she turns up in.
I fully know I fell a bit under Eastwood’s “stick it to ‘em!” spell of an approach but I didn’t find myself filled with a lot of regret in the act. Eastwood and I don’t agree on a lot of things but we seem to agree that Jewell was mightily wronged. I can see this movie appealing to a particular crowd of folks and being considered complete troublemaking propaganda to another – but at least it creates a dialogue. I’d rather have a movie like Richard Jewell come out with its clear message (whether you want to hear it or not) that gets people talking than something you see and forget about instantly.