Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Over his career as a director, Clint Eastwood has shown an interest in morally complex heroes. Either bad guys put in a position to do good things or good guys who have done questionable things in the name of making the world a better place. His latest, the based-on-fact drama Richard Jewell, is about a man who fits into the latter category. His problem is, the people investigating do not see him that way. The story of the security guard who found a bomb in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics and saved hundreds of lives, Eastwood fashions it into a cautionary tale about the damage our need for easy answers and instant justice can do. Especially when the obvious suspect is innocent. When the movie focuses on Richard’s ordeal, boosted by an outstanding title performance, it is very compelling. When it tries to make a statement about fake news and reckless law enforcement, it is less successful.
Richard Jewell was a man who always wanted to work in law enforcement. He bounced around sheriff’s offices and security jobs, getting into trouble because he believed he was the only person who knew how to properly do the job. His black-and-white ideas about justice meant he was unemployed when he was given the chance to work security at the 1996 Olympics. Far more attentive and by-the-book than the other security guards, he finds a backpack under a bench and insists they follow procedure by alerting the police. When it turns out to be a bomb, Richard becomes a national hero. Then, the FBI starts looking in his direction, this information is leaked to a fame-seeking journalist and Richard’s life is turned upside-down.
Richard Jewell is played by Paul Walter Hauser, best known for memorable supporting roles in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman. Here, he has been tasked with carrying a movie. Not only does he have the most screen time, all the emotional weight is on him as well. In order to see things Eastwood’s way, we have to empathize with the character. Hauser absolutely delivers on all counts in one of the best performances of 2019. He plays Richard as a good man who causes issues for himself due to his unwavering belief in law enforcement. He knows he is innocent, so he just assumes if he does what he is asked, the truth will present itself. It is fascinating to watch an innocent man dig his own grave because it is not in his nature to fight back. Hauser keeps Richard’s true thoughts bottled up inside. This is a man whose life has not equipped him to deal with something like this. When Eastwood centers things on Hauser’s performance, Richard Jewell (based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article "American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell" by Marie Brenner) is powerfully effective.
However, there are two significant aspects to the story that come off as needlessly manipulative. The first is the FBI, represented by Jon Hamm’s Tom Shaw and Ian Gomez’s Dan Bennet. They are put onto Jewell and are almost immediately convinced of his guilt, despite the evidence being circumstantial at best. They do whatever is necessary to trick Jewell into incriminating himself, knowing he is inclined to help. Since the skillfully suspenseful bombing sequence makes it clear Jewell did not do it, we are supposed to be outraged at the way they go after him. It is outrageous. And terrifying. Yet, would we feel that way if he was guilty? Their behavior is wrong because Richard Jewell was innocent. Would it still be wrong if he was not? I say yes, but I am unsure Eastwood agrees. The lack of nuance in their depiction bothered me.
The second troublesome element comes from the media, in the form of Olivia Wilde’s Kathy Scruggs. Scruggs was the actual writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who first put Richard Jewell’s name out there as the FBI’s main suspect. I know nothing about the real person. Here she is portrayed as a parasite who does not care if he did it as long as she gets to break the story. She will do anything to get what she wants, even offering sexual favors in exchange for information. The character as written is an uncomfortable stereotype. I think there was a way she could have been kept as is while adding enough depth to at least give her actions some motivations. Instead, she is just an evil “fake news” journalist who would rather sell papers than do her job.
Richard Jewell (124 minutes, without the end credits) is a good movie, though it seems like it could have been a great one if Eastwood did not allow his political agenda to get in the way. Jewell’s story is an intriguing one and Paul Walter Hauser gives a phenomenally complex performance. Unfortunately, the screenplay does not give that opportunity to the rest of the cast. Eastwood had something he wanted to say; he says it and nothing else. There are a lot of strong scenes in Richard Jewell. It is well-made, well-paced and well-acted. I enjoyed it. It just left me conflicted about its message.
3¾ out of 5
Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell
Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant
Kathy Bates as Bobi Jewell
Jon Hamm as Tom Shaw
Olivia Wilde as Kathy Scruggs
Ian Gomez as Dan Bennet
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Billy Ray