by George Wolf
Richard Jewell is a film Clint Eastwood has reportedly been trying to direct for years, and no wonder. It’s the story of a heroic man forced to fight against bureaucrats and parasites who question his heroism, which seems to be Clint’s favored genre.
Jewell, of course, was a hero at the Centennial Park bombing during the Atlanta olympics in 1996. A security guard who first spotted the bomb and was helping clear the scene when it exploded, Jewell was later named as the FBI’s prime suspect, and had his life turned upside down for months until the feds gave up.
It’s a pretty clear case of a man wronged, and a compelling story clearly worthy of a film. But while Eastwood and writer Billy Ray tell much of it well, their zeal for painting broad-stroked villains is hard to overcome.
After years of standout supporting roles (I, Tonya, Black KkKlansman) Paul Walter Hauser takes the lead as Jewell and grounds the film with a terrific and often touching performance. As suspicion around Jewell grows, the bonds created with his lawyer and his mother (Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates, both great) show Eastwood and Ray at their nuanced best.
The law and the press don’t get off so easy. That’s not to say they should get a pass, far from it, but Atlanta Journal reporter Kathy Scruggs is drawn so one dimensionally, Olivia Wilde might as well be twirling a mustache every time she’s onscreen.
The Journal is currently threatening legal action over the depiction of Scruggs (now deceased, as is Jewell) trading sexual favors to an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) for info, but the film’s slut-shaming isn’t reserved for just one reporter. They’re all whores.
And in case you miss the strategically placed sticker in the lawyer’s office that reads “I fear the government more than I fear terrorism,” Eastwood returns to it more than once. That’s grandstanding, not character development, and ends up undercutting a layer we could have gotten so much more intimately solely through Rockwell’s performance.
Richard Jewell‘s story is a good one, a tragic one, and a cautionary tale that deserves telling. And the film it deserves – the one where a common man finds the will to fight for his dignity – is in here, you just have to wade through some blanket scapegoating to find it.