Security guard, Richard Jewell, detonated a bomb at a concert he was supposed to be protecting during the Atlanta Olympic festivities in Centennial. He was caught and went to jail to pay for his crime. If this all you remember about his story you are not alone. Sadly, this is not actually what happened. Yet, for many, that will be Jewell’s legacy – that of a criminal. The Clint Eastwood film that bears his name, “Richard Jewell” sets the story of injustice straight.
In 1996, the country was still healing from the Oklahoma City bombing. When the news broke of a bombing at a family-friendly event set during the Olympics, stomachs dropped knowing that the age of ignorant bliss in this country had truly come to end. Even under such horrific circumstances, a glimmer of positive news arose from the tragedy in the form of a hero, a security guard at the event, Richard Jewell (Paul Walker Hauser). Jewell did not have your typical hero traits – he was a heavy set, not-extremely-bright man, who while in his mid-30s, still lived at home with his mother (Kathy Bates). The average Joe was credited with saving hundreds of lives after discovering a massive pipe bomb, alerting and ushering the people to safety.
Days later everything changes. The man who was just praised for his alert life-saving actions was suddenly being accused of planting the explosive device himself. A relentless press, happy to have their next big story, and federal law enforcement agents with tunnel vision, essentially character assassinate Jewell. They mercilessly shift public opinion of the man to public enemy number one.
While Hauser’s physical likeness to the actual man is uncanny, he does not let the similarities do the heavy lifting here. Instead, Hauser mesmerizes in the role, delivering Jewell as a familiar, layered, sympathetic “character.” He is the kind of guy you would be hard-pressed not rooting for, even if he occasionally gets on your nerves. Hauser balances the serious with levity without crossing into buffoonery, making it okay to laugh but still have you empathize with his situation. He kind of carries himself like a puppy – well-intentioned, overzealous, and often unable to get out of his own way.
Knowing he is in legal trouble, Jewell calls on the services of his friend, former employer, and his reluctant lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). The pair have challenges ahead of them because of Jewell’s knack for putting his foot out of his mouth, which leads to some very funny moments throughout the film. They have all the chemistry of a great comedic duo. Every baby step forward Bryant takes, Jewell takes a giant leap back. When not playing straight man to Hauser, Rockwell gives a focused performance which helps retain the gravity of the scenario.
Hauser delivers a precise, Oscar-caliber performance. So much of the authenticity of his performance is deeply rooted in the eyes – with the faintest squint or prolonged blink, we can see the gears working in his head. He may often be a step behind, but still tenaciously calculating the situation trying to keep up. As the accusations come out you can also see the pain striking him down to his core, psychically and emotionally gutting him. This guy who has longed to make his mark in the world, to be someone important, is being betrayed by the one-act that may have accomplished that. Jewell knows his innocence and will not stop fighting to clear his name.
Eastwood is not subtle here about his issues with how this was handled by both the media and law enforcement. This is where the biggest flaws can be found. He has a political past and does not have an issue drawing the line in the sand between the good guys and the villains, leaving little or no room for interpretation. The FBI agent leading the case against Jewell, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), is painted with one brush. Eastwood makes it impossible to like him, he’s the bad guy who approaches the case with endless persistence, stopping at nothing to get his man.
The media is embodied by Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), the real-life reporter who breaks the story of Jewell being a suspect. The over-the-top film version of Scruggs borders on stereotypical cartoon villain, Cruella DeVille without the fashion style. From frame one, we know she is morally bankrupt. When referring to the bomber at-large she spews lines like, “Please let us find him, before anyone else does. And please… whoever he is, let him be f**king interesting.” There is nothing understated about the character.
Although Eastwood tells a powerful underdog vs the establishment story and in turn denouncing the notion of a trial by media, he does so kind of unfairly by painting the “good” and “bad” guys in black and white. Doing so he undercuts some of the other fine work throughout the film.
Luckily, the good outweighs the bad. Eastwood orchestrates the aforementioned stellar performances by Hauser and Rockwell, which may be equaled by that of Kathy Bates. She tears your heart in two as an unconditionally supportive mother whose life has crashed around her because her beloved, would-not-hurt-a-fly son is suddenly the most hated man in the country. Her pain runs deep and it comes through with every line she delivers, both when talking about Richard or her Tupperware.
Overall, Eastwood’s direction is also taut and effective when essential. This is best exemplified in the handling of the fateful day in Centennial Park. It has all the heart-racing tension of watching a figurative (and literal) fuse burning down, waiting for the explosion. Even though we know what is going to happen, the helplessness of not being able to do anything to change history contrasts the persistence and bravery of Jewell. That scene is not alone in proving that although he has faltered with some films that of late, that at 89 years old Eastwood still can master his craft. Even with some missteps along the way he still delivers a degree of pathos that left me with a lingering sense of melancholy even after the credits rolled.
Eastwood delivers a poignant story of injustice, perseverance, and truth.