Synopsis – American security guard Richard Jewell saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is vilified by journalists and the press who falsely reported that he was a terrorist.
My Take – It sure is inspiring to see how actor/filmmaker Clint Eastwood even at the age of 89 is consistently delivering at least one film per year. While his late career filmography has covered all manner of topics, seven of his last nine films have been based on true stories and about his championing of fiercely individual heroes forced into conflict, resulting in films that have reached relative highs of American Sniper (2014) to the abysmal lows of The 15:17 to Paris (2018).
This time around too he brings a simplistic but effective drama about an eponymous security guard who saved untold lives when he discovered a bomb underneath a bench at Centennial Olympic Park during the Atlanta Olympics, only to be subsequently named as a suspect in the bombing by the FBI.
While the film has unfortunately managed to under-perform at the box office when it released in the U.S. last month, as a viewer I can assure you this is without a doubt one of the most emotionally draining films from the veteran filmmaker, as it manages to be a captivating recreation of a man’s journey through hell and back.
Here, director Eastwood and writer Billy Ray do a fantastic job of compressing the events of the story, while also providing pertinent elements of Jewell’s eccentric background, thus yielding an engaging film which tugs at the heart and evokes an examination of one’s conscience. With its strong acting and character relationship dynamics being the main selling points, the film also deserves praise for Eastwood’s sense of direction and pacing.
Starting off in 1986, the story follows Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), an awkward and surprisingly efficient supply clerk working at a law firm where he forms a unique bond with Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a loud wisecracking lawyer that is until he leaves the job to become a security guard, hoping to join law enforcement one day.
But ten years later, Richard has gone from being a cop to an overzealous campus police to one of the security members at the Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. However his big moment comes when he notices a suspicious backpack on the ground, during a concert at the park, and alerts the authorities. While initially some of his colleagues think he’s over-reacting, Jewell’s instincts prove correct, when a bomb is revealed inside the bag, giving enough time for him and his fellow guards to move enough revelers out of the way before it goes off.
While the impending detonation does kill two people and injures more than a hundred, Jewell ends up being celebrated as a hero for his quick thinking since the casualties could have been much worse. But soon after a FBI team led by Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) begin to believe that his curious wanna-be life does fit the classic profile of a perpetrator and begin investigating him.
And when a front page article written by journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, naming Richard as the main suspect, hits the stand and is picked up new networks around the world, it sends his domestic life with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) into chaos. Seeking help he calls upon Watson, who is now running his own struggling law firm with his cheerful secretary Nadya (Nina Arianda), to be his representative in clearing his tarnished image.
Based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article ‘American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell’ by Marie Brenner, the film wants us to imagine how it would feel to be falsely accused of a terrorist act that killed and injured people, to become FBI’s primary suspect, to have your name and face spread across every possible media outlet, and have your belongings searched and seized as evidence, that too immediately after you were hailed for your good deed by the same people. This was the exact feeling shared by Richard Jewell, in whom director Eastwood sees another example of the little guy at war with forces far more powerful than he is.
However, unlike the lead protagonists of American Sniper and Sully, here Jewell is quite naive. He fantasizes about possessing power and authority but lacks the awareness to appreciate such responsibility.
He holds no special talent and shares an enthusiasm for guns and a proclivity for the rule of law. Worst of all, he’s the butt of others’ jokes and a doormat. Most of the time, he’d rather schmooze with law enforcement, even the men investigating him, than appear disrespectful. He’s that desperate for acceptance and friendship. In these moments, the film is deeply hilarious and unflinchingly human: often showing the myriad of ways he can shoot himself in the foot.
It takes several false starts before he’s ready to do what any director Eastwood protagonist does, i.e. take the unsuspecting odds and fight back. Which provides the emotional heft required for Jewell and Bryant to create an unlikely rapport. While Bryant’s righteous anger is pro forma for this kind of film, it’s also deeply satisfying.
Unfortunately, how director Eastwood portrays the media during this struggle lacks precision. The film turns Scruggs’ character into a famed monster, an untalented journalist who needs to sleep her way into sources. This tactic is not a documented, proven fact. While attempting to right the wrong of injustice perpetrated upon Jewell, director Eastwood may, himself, unjustly tarnishes the memory of the also deceased Scruggs.
I understand he wants to show how we’ve lost our trust in the news as unimpeachable through Scruggs, but he distracts by rendering her as a cackling cutthroat woman perpetually lampooning Jewell as a loser, hereby impacting the final result of the film.
Nevertheless, much like his other recent films, this one too depends heavily on characterization, and the ensemble cast delivers. Paul Walter Hauser nails the lead performance in his portrayal of the titular man and is deeply affecting. He is spot-on in every scene, and is a pleasure to watch. Sam Rockwell is superb and shares excellent chemistry with Hauser. Kathy Bates brings in yet another strong and heartfelt performance, as Nina Arianda brings some welcome sarcasm to her role.
Jon Hamm does solid work as an underhanded FBI agent who is desperate to find the bomber since this attack happened on his watch, while Olivia Wilde gives a fine performance as an arrogant, ambitious and clawing reporter, independent of the sexual implications. On the whole, ‘Richard Jewell’ is yet another inherently compelling story addition to Clint Eastwood‘s beyond legendary filmography.
Directed – Clint Eastwood
Rated – R
Run Time – 131 minutes