Have you ever loved a movie you know deep in your gut has problematic elements? Well, welcome to Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, a compelling, empathetic look at a hero who morphed into a suspected villain after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games bombing. Because of the current times we live in, and Eastwood’s perceived conservatism, the film almost goes as far as a certain White House occupant in calling the press, “the enemy of the people”. Still, Eastwood and his very left leaning writer, Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), have crafted an impressive underdog story which just may make you think twice about the next heavyset rube you judge too quickly.
The film stars Paul Walter Hauser, so memorable in I, Tonya, as a security guard who spots an unattended backpack in Centennial Park and attempts to clear the area. Although his actions minimized the fatalities and saved many lives, the FBI and the press soon enough painted him as the culprit. He went from hero to zero overnight and one could argue his reputation never fully recovered. The first act provides us with Jewell’s backstory as a law firm’s mailroom clerk, presided over by Sam Rockwell’s Watson Bryant. They strike up an unlikely friendship which will pay dividends at a later time. Jewell eventually moves on to become a put-upon campus security guard with aspirations to join the police force. He lives at home with his loving mother Bobi (a vivid, lived-in performance by Kathy Bates) and despite the jeers he gets from students, he has a fearless, confident, jump-right-in approach to everything he does. I appreciated this early section for not painting Jewell in angelic strokes. He has a temper and a slightly authoritarian streak, which will clearly come back to haunt him.
After the bombing, the FBI, represented here by Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez, start to realize that everything doesn’t add up, leaving Jewell as a prime suspect. When reporters from the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) catch wind of this, the events systematically begin to dismantle Richard’s life. Olivia Wilde as real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs and David Shae as her fellow journalist Ron Martz appear ominous at first, prowling the city at night like some shadowy figures ready to pounce. While Martz comes across as the slightly mysterious straight man, Wilde lives up to her last name and barrels through the film. It’s a fearless, middle finger, flirty, seductive, scene-stealing role, and Wilde clearly relishes it.
Unfortunately, the suggestion that Scruggs traded on her sexuality for intel has caused much controversy and consternation amongst viewers and even amongst the staff of the AJC, who have come to her defense since she sadly passed away in 2001. The main villains in the film seem to be the FBI and journalists. It sounds so 2019, doesn’t it? Personally, I look back at the Richard Jewell story as a bellwether for things to come. We saw then how public perception can turn on a dime, something all-too-common now.
It’s enough to leave an icky taste in my mouth were it not for the excellent filmmaking, writing, and performances. Eastwood achieves great tension during the inciting incident and allows Hauser’s fantastic skills to guide us through his truly affecting emotional journey to clear his name. Lesser films would have presented Jewell as a gentle giant, a saint with no faults whatsoever. Jewell may have a sad sack quality, but he’s also cunning, a bit of a blowhard, and disarmingly direct. Try watching a late scene involving a donut without wanting to give the guy a big hug as you quietly pat your tears dry. Rockwell also excels as a man who learns to beam with pride at a man he once barely noticed.
With Richard Jewell and the upcoming Bombshell, we get conservative characters at the center of their stories. Is Hollywood catering to Trump’s base now? Should Hollywood only explore stories with liberal themes? It’s a conundrum far too icky for me to dwell upon, especially when the filmmakers evoke the “fake news” mantra and give Jon Hamm such a sneering final line. It all makes me want to stick my head in the sand and just cheer for the little guy who finally gets his day in the sun.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Richard Jewell gets a 0 out of 50. It features a concert sequence with Kenny Rogers, so trust me, no gays were present!
By Glenn Gaylord
Richard Jewell opens wide in the U.S. on December 13th 2019.