Clint Eastwood returns yet again this year with another film examining heroism. His 2010s output has largely been defined by this focus with Richard Jewell being his latest entry. The story of Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is that of a man who did his job only to be persecuted by the FBI and the media as a suspect in a crime he did not commit. Working as a security guard during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, Jewell identifies a suspicious package. He insists to the local police working the event that he is not crazy or wrong and they begrudgingly heed his warning. Initially, after the bomb explodes and sends nails flying through the crowd, it seems like Jewell is to be remembered as a hero. That is, until the FBI takes an interest in him due to a tip from an ex-employer who saw him as a likely candidate to do whatever it took to receive fame and heroic recognition.
The persecution he faces has been compared to that of Donald Trump with many resorting to Eastwood’s Republican politics as a timely parallel. However, Eastwood is a Libertarian and Richard Jewell is influenced more by that than anything to do with Trump. He is a filmmaker who has always championed those who do their job in the face of immense challenges. He tells the stories of common folk who are crushed under the system. Jewell, naturally, fits this to a tee. He is not a Trump-like figure. He is not racist. He is not extreme. He is just a guy who wants to work in law enforcement and has been laughed away because of his appearance and eagerness to please. Jewell is kind and thoughtful. Trump and men like him possess power that people like Jewell could not have. It is precisely for this reason that Eastwood takes a shine to his story, focusing on the powerless being crushed by an intrusive and oppressive government as well as a media apparatus that does its bidding. It is a film deeply in fear of big government – lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) even has a poster in his office proclaiming a greater fear of government than of terrorism – not one eagerly lining up to defend Trump, the head of that very government, against his critics.
Unfortunately, this fear of government and of the threat of being tried in the public spotlight does not extend to the film’s treatment of Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). Where truth ends and fiction begins throughout Richard Jewell can be hard to tell, but there is no question that it errs in introducing the factually incorrect stereotype that women journalists sleep with men to get stories/careers. It is very much in line with the behavior one would expect from the character the second she introduced as Billy Ray wrote her as a caricature of everything one’s conservative parents would hate about women. The first thing out of her mouth is about how she needs a “tit job” if she wants to keep her job, and she is vulgar, loud, and crude when discussing the brutality of the crimes she covers. It is an indefensible characterization created by Ray and included in the film by Eastwood, far removed from reality and existing only to create an easy antagonist. The film redeems her a bit as she probes the facts of the story and realizes she is wrong – which is more than can be said about the similarly caricaturish FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) – but Richard Jewell is too ready to point the finger at her for simply being a woman doing her job.
The slim characterizations of his pursuers does leave Richard Jewell feeling rather one-note, but it is bolstered by the performances. Paul Walter Hauser is Richard Jewell. He is fantastic, capturing the bumbling yet kind man who is being trampled on. He can be aggravating as Richard so eagerly tries to help the same people trying to railroad him, all because he is “law enforcement too”, but it is hard to not be moved by Hauser’s performance. As he gives way into anger and shows some outward emotion, there is an exasperation that Hauser taps into that makes the moment so rich and powerful. Even as her nervously tries to help and begrudgingly (at least outwardly) seems to accept what is going on, there is an understated and festering rage within him. He has no idea how to handle it, so he just sits there and tries to help. Entirely helpless and lost, Hauser’s Jewell is a figure who easily garners immense sympathy. Alongside him, Kathy Bates is terrific as his mother Bobi. She gets her chance to shine when Watson Bryant taps her to speak to the nation in order to help exonerate her son with Bates’ tears and trembling face often overcoming her words. It is impossible to not be moved by the raw expression of such emotion, something that Bates carries with her in every scene as she tries to cling onto normalcy during such a tumultuous time.
The strength of Clint Eastwood’s direction is also clear as Richard Jewell benefits from his ever-workmanlike approach to story. There is nothing flashy here, just a good old fashioned character study and thriller that Eastwood never seeks to outshine. There are some more eye-catching sequences like a cross cut between Michael Johnson breaking the world record and Watson Bryant timing things out between Jewell’s location and a phone booth where a 911 call about the bomb came from that work incredibly well. The build up to the bomb as Richard tries to convince people he is right and the race to get people away is well handled. Even if one knows the bomb is coming, it still catches you off-guard which is a credit to Eastwood with his strong sense of pace and timing. As the FBI closes in and interrogates Jewell, the film becomes an intense and uneasy work with the camera’s tight framing and the similarly close blocking ramping up the visual tension of these moments. By the end, as he is cleared, the openness and sense of relief of the moment, is palpable and powerfully presented by Eastwood and Hauser.
There is some bloat to the film, however, especially in the first act with a flashback to Richard’s first time meeting Watson and in the early second act as Richard’s background in “law enforcement” is established. It all has a pay-off, but Richard Jewell takes a bit too long to get going. Scenes such as a cringeworthy takedown of Kathy Scruggs by Watson Bryant in her office serve to bring the action to a screeching halt. Its inclusion in Richard Jewell is incredibly hamfisted and geared towards eliciting whoops and hollers from the audience members convinced by that Kathy is some sexed-up cold-blooded maniac instead of a hard-working journalist.
Richard Jewell’s flaws are large and its politics are worn right on its chest, making Eastwood’s latest one of the more controversial films of this year. The director’s recent films never seem to come or go quietly with this one hardly the exception. Fortunately, flaws aside, it is a major step up from his last few misfires – see The Mule – or his recent examinations of “heroes” in Sully or American Sniper. Nonetheless, the film is still a far cry from his greatest works. Terrific performances from Paul Walter Hauser and Kathy Bates aside, Richard Jewell is a serviceable film that possesses some of Eastwood’s trademark craftsmanship but lacks in the finishing touches that would allow it to stand alongside his best works.