THE STORY – American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist.
THE CAST – Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde & Paul Walter Hauser
THE TEAM – Clint Eastwood (Director) & Billy Ray (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
Dramatizing the events and aftermath surrounding the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing, Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” zeroes in on the security guard who discovered the bomb and subsequently became their only suspect. Like Eastwood’s earlier film “Sully,” it’s the story of a man’s heroic acts that thrust him into the spotlight, only for his life to be picked apart in endless media scrutiny. Also like “Sully,” this film rests squarely on the shoulders of its lead actor, and Paul Walter Hauser carries the weight with remarkable emotional depth.
After stealing more than a few scenes in 2017’s “I, Tonya,” Hauser takes center stage here as the titular Richard Jewell. He’s a security guard with plenty of passion and not much self-awareness. Still living at home with his mom (Kathy Bates), Jewell has bounced around to various jobs trying to become a law enforcement professional. He’s exactly the type of overzealous security guard we’ve all run into at some point – someone desperate to find trouble that he can put to a stop, no matter how mundane. He’s determined to be a hero, even if it’s just as a security guard at a concert in Centennial Park. Often mocked, Jewell doesn’t let it deter him. He takes his job seriously. So seriously, that he stumbles upon a legitimate threat: a bomb in the park.
The bomb goes off, injuring hundreds and killing two, but not before Jewell alerts authorities and helps to begin clearing the area. He’s a national hero, interviewed on every news network as the man who discovered the bomb and saved countless lives. It doesn’t take long for the media to turn on him once the FBI begins investigating. They rip apart his life, stake out his house, and paint him as a terrorist on TV worldwide. We know he didn’t do it, and the film never tries to get us to believe he did. Instead, we’re focused on the torment he and his mom are suffering.
Hauser is the real deal. Jewell could easily be a caricature rather than a human being – as he was portrayed in the media – but Hauser makes every moment feel so authentic. His awkwardness, his desire to be taken seriously, even his love for his mom, it’s all so layered within Hauser’s performance. It’s not simply a facade; the moments we get to see past the annoying exterior show Jewell with depth and pain. This movie lives and dies on this performance, and Hauser proves he’s up to the task.
He’s not alone, though. Sam Rockwell plays Watson Bryant, Jewell’s friend and lawyer who represents him during this fiasco. After a few years of playing larger-than-life or exaggerated characters in “Three Billboards,” “Vice,” and this year’s “Jojo Rabbit,” Rockwell is refreshingly restrained. Bryant is somewhat in over his head, but he’s determined to exonerate Jewell. Additionally, Bates shines as Bobi Jewell, Richard’s mother. She’s passionate and scared, emotions in tatters. It’s a role that an actor could skate by doing the bare minimum, but Bates brings everything to the table, especially in a moving press conference scene. Elsewhere, Olivia Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, a reporter determined to get a scoop. The character is cartoonish and silly, hiding in cars and sleeping with FBI agents to get a leg up on the breaking news. It’s a stark contrast to the low-key tone of the film.
Eastwood’s simple style benefits the narrative. Aside from one or two flashbacks, it’s a fairly straightforward portrayal of Jewell’s story. This approach lets the performances shine, and the emotions to flow naturally from the characters. And because there’s no real mystery to solve here – we know Jewell is innocent – the film starts to lose some steam toward the end. All the pieces have already been set in motion, there’s nothing more to discover, and we’re just waiting for the resolution. Still, there’s enough tension throughout the film to keep it compelling.
“Richard Jewell” plays out like justice for a man wronged, and the world gets to see that he’s innocent. A true hero, bumbling as he may have been, now has his story told.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Paul Walter Hauser brings so much authenticity and complexity to this role. He’s the heart of the film and brings it home. The rest of the ensemble shines as well, making this a compelling and heartfelt drama.
THE BAD – Knowing the outcome beforehand, the film loses a bit of steam near the end. Olivia Wilde’s character is absurdly written, bringing a cartoonish villain to this otherwise understated film.