Richard Jewell is the true story of an American nightmare that gives its leading man a chance to shine, despite wallowing in propaganda.
In 1996, Atlanta was rocked by a devastating bomb placed in Centennial Park during the Summer Olympics, killing two people and injuring 111 others. Coming just a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI became hellbent on finding the perpetrator. They settled on the man who discovered the bomb itself, a security guard named Richard Jewell.
The story of Jewell’s persecution and eventual exoneration is the subject of director Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic. An excoriating tale of governmental misconduct, Richard Jewell ultimately suffers under Eastwood’s hands, though it flies straight thanks to stupendous performances from leading man Paul Walter Hauser and supporting performer Sam Rockwell.
Make no mistake, we will be talking about Paul Walter Hauser come Oscar time, because he is the bright, shining beacon which everyone and everything in Richard Jewell revolves around, and I’m not talking narratively. Hauser, who has made his career playing bumbling idiots in the likes of I, Tonya and BlackKklansmen takes a character that, in other hands, would have been a cartoony caricature.
Hauser’s Richard Jewell is a good old boy, though not in a way that’s offensive. He says “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” offers sodas to pregnant women, and takes his job as a security guard so seriously it’s landed him in trouble a time or two. And yet for all the things the audience knows about Richard Jewell that, in our current world of chronic police misconduct, would be troubling, Hauser makes them charming. He’s a nice guy who, at times, borders on loveably simple.
Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray, whose dialogue is crackling in spite of some sloppy characterization we’ll get to, take their time setting up Richard and his life. He’s been fired as a college security guard for excessive complaints and is way too enamored of police procedure. By the time he starts working at Centennial Park, the audience can certainly understand why he’d be labeled a suspect.
The Centennial Park sequence leading up to the bombing is Eastwood’s masterpiece, and it is the moment in Richard Jewell that people will remember that isn’t specifically tied to Hauser’s performance. The way the characters play the scene expresses all the necessary tension, and once Jewell’s fears about the “package” being a bomb are confirmed, it becomes a race against time to keep everyone away.
But Jewell’s bravery ends up becoming his worst nightmare once the FBI, led by Jon Hamm’s Agent Shaw, believes he is a police wannabe who planted the bomb for attention. The movie splits off into a series of plots, focusing on Shaw’s investigation of Jewell, Jewell’s response to the accusations and his teaming with attorney Watson Bryan (Sam Rockwell), and a local Atlanta journalist named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) reporting “the facts” about Jewell’s villainy.
Had the narrative portrayed the FBI and the media as faceless entities, their respective storylines might not have felt like Eastwood’s propaganda regarding the smearing of a good American patriot — which is exactly how he portrays things (there are plenty waving American flags here to confirm it). It would have also kept Hamm and Wilde from becoming mustache-twirling baddies whose sole purpose in life is to seemingly destroy.
Hamm is solid as Shaw, but it’s a role he’s played countless times before, that of a true believer who is a jerk and a womanizer. In this case, he becomes convinced of Jewell’s guilt and then sleeps with Wilde’s Scruggs, only to be upset when she leaks the story.
In a discussion after the movie, Hamm revealed that the real agent, whose name had to be changed due to legal issues, ended up being proven wrong on numerous cases, and that’s a fascinating story unmentioned in the narrative. Instead, Shaw believes Jewell is guilty because the story demands it. The same goes for Wilde’s Scruggs. With her messy unwashed ponytail and an IDGAF attitude to the other women in her office, the script obviously wants her to be the new take on Faye Dunaway’s venal newspaperwoman in Network.
The problem is, Scruggs is nothing but the example of the devil as a woman. She has no morals or integrity, journalistic or otherwise, and becomes a stand-in for the media in general: a bunch of dirty skanks willing to screw (and screw over) anyone without a second thought. The problem is, this sounds more like Eastwood’s posturing than anything organic within the narrative.
When the narrative is fixated on Jewell and Bryant is when the true magic happens. There isn’t an ounce of ambiguity towards Jewell’s character; never does the audience believe he is guilty. So, because the character is such a bald-faced personality, the dynamic between Hauser and Rockwell becomes paramount. Hauser is all sugar to Rockwell’s stick. Rockwell plays Bryant as the dogged, prickly attorney who can’t fathom what is happening to a man as goodhearted as Jewell, and it leads to a host of fantastic dialogue exchanges that vacillate between the heartfelt and the humorous.
Kathy Bates’ performance as Bobbi Jewell, Richard’s mother, feels similarly insular as opposed to showy. When she breaks down while giving a message to the press, it’s heartbreaking because Bates shows the conviction of her words.
Richard Jewell is a surface-level story whose depth comes from its star performance. Hauser is stupendous and deserves the Oscar acclaims heaped upon him, as does Rockwell. The problem will be divorcing the narrative from our current landscape of diminishing consequences for white men. The cartoony villains Eastwood creates to spew his own thoughts on the media and the government are also laughable.