Just in time for Oscar consideration, Clint Eastwood throws his hat into the ring with “Richard Jewell,” the story of the security guard who was unjustly blamed for the 1996 bombing in Centennial Park during the Olympics in Atlanta. Eastwood knows exactly what makes a good film—start with a good story and then tell it well. There are no fancy bells and whistles, just a jaw-dropping series of events, all derived from Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article and Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwin’s book “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle.”
We meet the hapless Jewell portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser who you may remember from “I, Tonya” as he works as a supply clerk in a law firm. His off-beat eccentricities make people uncomfortable, but the driven loser has his eyes on the prize—becoming a police officer. Time goes by and his “eccentricities” get him ousted from law enforcement, a devastating blow for him. Living with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), he works as a security guard during the Olympics. His intense focus and “by the book” inflexibilities actually allows him to identify the bomb placed in the park during a concert, resulting in hundreds of lives being saved. He’s a hero…for a day. The FBI, ATF, and other agencies attempt to find the bomber only to leak information to an unscrupulous reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who detonates her own written bomb. And this is where the story really begins.
Jewell’s personality and lifestyle tick off all the requisite boxes describing a bomber. He’s a loner, lives with his mother, collects guns, is a wannabe police officer, etc. Unbeknownst to Jewell, he is now a primary suspect and is duped by the FBI (Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez) to “make a training video.” Jewell begins to realize he’s the suspect and calls Watson Bryant, the only lawyer he knows having met him 10 years prior during his days as a supply clerk. The FBI attempts to make Jewell fit the profile with Bryant trying to protect him. If only Jewell’s trusting and respectful nature and need to talk incessantly wouldn’t get in the way of it. As we get to know and understand Jewell, we see him as a harmless teddy bear bringing in an element of ironic humor in an otherwise intense drama.
At the heart of the story is the lack of journalistic integrity and the fallout from it. The intensity with which the story is told is captivatingly disturbing. The unethical behavior from not just the journalists, editors, and FBI, but major networks who are running with a story that gets viewers’ attention adds to the disappointment in these entities. It’s a devastating series of misfortunate events and while many of us remember the ending, there are still plenty of surprises for you.
To say that this is a strong cast is stating the obvious, but Hauser is not only a dead ringer for the real life Richard Jewell, he demonstrates the emotional and physical characteristics of this man. He’s meek yet seeks an authoritarian role, but never really earns the respect of others. His odd interactions and physical attributes find him at the butt of everyone’s jokes. And within all of this, we are sympathetic to him as we watch his emotional status devolve. Hauser is Jewell and shows us he can skillfully lead and support a complicated film. Of course, having Sam Rockwell as your right hand man can’t hurt. Rockwell, again like Hauser, fits Bryant’s description to a T. He creates a laid back Southern lawyer who ironically has utter disdain for authority and rules. Together, Rockwell and Hauser create the perfect pair allowing us to understand this series of unfortunate events.
Wilde is wild in her role as Scruggs. She’s incredibly energetic, disrespectful, and uses her wily ways to gain access and information. Bates comfortably melds into her role as the loving, protective yet strict older mom. Any mother will relate to her as the increasing helplessness overwhelms her. And Nina Arianda as Nadya, Bryant’s assistant, adds a bit of levity to the film as she becomes more involved in helping with the case and its inconsistencies.
“Richard Jewell” is a story from the past, but one for our current times as well. It reminds us all of the importance of journalistic integrity and our need for trust in authoritarian agencies such as the police and FBI. Eastwood tells this almost-forgotten story with style, but never in a heavy-handed way. Allowing the details to unfold effortlessly while the actors give evocative performances is exactly what the film requires to engage and entertain its viewers. Eastwood is a master of finding a personal story and telling it well. No fancy bells and whistles are needed when you have a good story and “Richard Jewell” is a great one.
*Eastwood is currently being sued by the Atlantic Journal-Constitution newspaper for falsely portraying the paper and its personnel.