Movie review: Richard Jewell

January 17, 2020

AS a filmmaker, Clint Eastwood has a solid filmography with two Oscar-winning films, “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”, for which he was also nominated as best actor. He now comes up with “Richard Jewell”, based on the true story of an American security guard who was hailed as a hero in the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in July, 1996, when he discovered a backpack containing three bombs planted by terrorists on the Centennial Olympic Park grounds.  

He alerted the cops and helped in evacuating the people in the area  before the bombs exploded and saved many people from harm. He was initially regarded a hero but was later considered a prime suspect, erroneously accused of setting up the bomb himself due to sloppy police work and needlessly crucified by a sensational media coverage.

He was subjected to a trial by media and, even though he was never really charged, this took a toll on his personal and professional life. He was eventually exonerated and the real bomber was later found. Ten years later, the State of Georgia publicly thanked him for saving people’s lives in the Olympics. Jewell passed away a year later at the age of only 44 due to heart disease and diabetes.

Told in a conventional linear manner based on an article in Vanity Fair, we first see Richard (Paul Walter Hauser) as a college security guard who is overly zealous in doing his job and accosts some students drinking in their room, so the dean urged him to resign. This dean will later be instrumental in implicating him and discrediting him as a false hero.  

He then gets to work with AT&T, a sponsor of the Olympics, and he’s assigned to be a guard in the Olympic Park. His discovery of the bombs makes him a celebrity and he even gets to be interviewed on TV.  But his fame won’t last as an FBI agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), is assigned to investigate him because there are cases of alleged heroes on site who later on turn out be actually the ones to have caused the disaster.

Tom has been hitting on a a female journalist, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who seduces him and, to get into her good graces, he gives her the name of Richard Jewell as a suspect.  Kathy then turns the table on Jewell, writing that he fits the profile of the lone bomber. She becomes a celebrity in their own office and her officemates give her a standing ovation.

Richard's life sort of implodes, but he decides to fight back with the help of a lawyer friend he has known for a long time, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, who’s also in “Jojo Rabbit” and he’s great in both films).

As a filmmaker, Eastwood has dealt with his concepts of heroism and villainy in various works, clearly distinguishing between good and bad.  The bad guys here are clearly the careless FBI agent and the irresponsible reporter who quickly spread lies about Richard.  The frenzy that followed nearly crushed Richard and Eastwood as a director is clearly siding with him in this unfortunate tale of media irresponsibility. The journalist here and those who also picked up her story are the exact opposites of the do-gooding writers in “Spotlight” and “The Post”. They’re just pesky biased reporters who just want to eat Jewell alive and the repugnant Kathy even ambushes Watson in his own car trying to get information from him. The avalanche of negative publicity generated by the insinuations, without any regard for actual facts, made the hero suddenly the villain. It will take several months before Richard’s name is eventually cleared.

Hauser, who we first saw in an amusing supporting role as the idiotic henchman of Tonya Harding’s husband in “I, Tonya”, is well cast as Richard. He is effective as the fat and bullied doormat, a mama’s boy who wants validation as a law enforcer, so nice and solicitous even to the FBI guys who torment him. Watson tells him he just doesn’t know how to get angry and he says he’s just trying to do the right thing.

The film reminds us of “John Denver Trending” which is also about an injustice and how people can be so judgmental without knowing the whole story. This is also reminiscent of the award-winning TV series, “Unbelievable”, where a girl was raped and the cops forced her to admit that she just made up the story.

Kathy Bates plays Richard’s mom, Barbara, and she gets her Oscar moment in that scene where she gets to talk to press blaming the media for portraying her son as the bad guy when he is innocent. She’s now nominated as best supporting actress.

Clint is one of today’s most prolific filmmakers, making all sorts of films, including rivetting characters studies like “Sully” with Tom Hanks, “J. Edgar Hoover” with Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Mule” where he played the title role, “American Sniper” with Bradley Cooper and true-to-life drama and action flicks like “Invictus” (about Nelson Mandela and rugby) and “15:17 to Paris” (about three friends who thwarted a terrorist attack inside a train). He’s not always successful, like in his film version of the Broadway hit “Jersey Boys” and his film about the afterlife “Hereafter”, but you can be sure that his films are still eminently watchable.