Clint Eastwood has made a pattern of examining real-life American heroes late in his career. American Sniper and Sully take rather understated looks at people who are known for their deeds, and the way those deeds end up affecting their psyche. And Eastwood’s newest film, Richard Jewell, follows yet another American hero, who was wrongly persecuted for doing his job well. It’s an inherently compelling story of a good man standing up to titanic forces attempting to vilify him. And Eastwood, for the most part, takes a restrained approach to the material that allows the performances to stand tall and convey the emotional turmoil that the government and media caused for a man who’s sole motivation was to protect and serve.
Paul Walter Hauser, who has impressed in smaller roles in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman, stars as the titular security guard whose discovery and swift reporting of a bomb in Centennial Park in 1996 helped save many lives. But when the FBI begins to look at Jewell as a potential suspect, a hungry journalist named Kathy Scruggs (a wildly over-the-top Olivia Wilde) seduces this information out of FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm, playing an FBI agent for the umpteenth time). She goes so far as reporting a story purporting Jewell as the prime suspect, unconcerned with the media whirlwind that will sweep away Jewell’s life, as he knows it.
Richard Jewell becomes the villain in the media and FBI’s story of the Atlanta bombing, and his life (and that of his mother’s) is thrust into an antagonistic spotlight. This leads him to reconnect with an old friend and lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Together, they must take a stand against two of the most formidable powers in our country to prove Richard’s innocence and redefine his heroic efforts as what they were: heroic.
Billy Ray’s screenplay for Richard Jewell is as stripped down as Eastwood’s directorial approach, which both helps and hurts the film as a whole. The film effectively gives us insight into how the media and FBI’s trigger-happy perception of the good-hearted Richard affects his pride in working for law enforcement. We only see Richard as a kind soul who loves his mother and takes his job of protecting the public very seriously. His only real flaw is his naive insistence on helping the FBI with their investigation, to which Watson asks why he feels the need to give the FBI any sort of credibility or respect. And Richard’s answer to that question changes as they continue to ignore a lack of evidence in their intent to confirm his guilt.
Watching Richard and his mother go through what they had to go through is made all the more heartbreaking by how non-showy its portrayal is. Paul Walter Hauser plays Richard in a way that makes him immediately likable, without ever overplaying his goodness. He’s a teddy bear of a guy, and everything he does comes from an unwavering desire to help or protect. His relationship with his mother (played terrifically by Kathy Bates), whom he lives with, is so sweet that when the chaos of their situation begins to overwhelm her, it’s hard not to be moved to tears by her devastation and Richard’s lovingly protective response.
Richard also has a nice friendship with his lawyer, and Sam Rockwell finally gets a reprieve from his villainous, racist roles he’s been typecast as, lately (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jojo Rabbit). Rockwell and Hauser have a good camaraderie, and the film’s brief moments of humor occur when Watson tries to prevent Richard from talking to anyone, which proves quite difficult for a guy as open and friendly as Richard.
But then, there’s the portrayal of Olivia Wilde’s journalist as a cackling maniacal villain, which feels so far removed from the rest of the film, and hammers home the film’s theme of an untrustworthy media in the worst way possible. At one point, minutes after a bomb has injured and killed multiple innocents, reporter Kathy Scruggs shows up and prays with her fellow journalist: “please God, let us find this guy first, and let him be f*cking interesting.” Yes, it’s that over-the-top.
The FBI are more sneakily corrupt in their blind efforts to incriminate Richard, and those circumstances are the more terrifying, given that these are the people who are supposed to protect our country and its innocent civilians. And when the antagonists of your story are this wildly uneven in their depictions, the film can’t quite carry the requisite dramatic weight that its aiming for. This leaves Hauser, Bates, and Rockwell to make you believe and invest in Richard’s fight to prove his innocence, which they admittedly do very well.
Richard Jewell is one of Eastwood’s better late-career efforts, telling an intrinsically interesting story in a mostly subdued way that allows the performances of the central trio to shine. Even when the antagonists and some of the staging are unconvincingly exaggerated, Paul Walter Hauser’s sincere work makes you understand the reality of Richard’s uphill battle. And its thanks to him, Bates, and Rockwell that, even with its worst aspects, Richard Jewell ends up being as moving as it is.
Richard Jewell is rated PG-13, and it hits theaters on December 13.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros.