Justice and injustice preoccupy many of the films in which Clint Eastwood has starred or directed. Richard Jewell is no exception. Eastwood’s drama skillfully pays tribute to the real, simple-minded security guard, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), who discovers and reports a suspicious backpack at an Olympic Centennial Park concert in July 1996. Authorities identify that the backpack contains a pipe bomb, and the security guard bravely joins law enforcement officials in herding away those in the zone of imminent danger. Jewell, who obeys his mother and the letter of the law, does his job and heroically saves the lives of thousands that day by exercising discipline, caution and quick, selfless action. In return for this manifestation of his lifelong desire to protect others, Jewell enjoys a few days of heroic fame, quickly followed by nightmarish ridicule, harassment and unjust accusation. The institutions of law and order, which Jewell idolizes, are the perpetrators of this injustice upon him, exacerbated by newspaper and television media. Eastwood and screenplay writer Billy Ray do a fantastic job of compressing the events of this story, while also providing pertinent elements of Jewell’s eccentric background, yielding an engaging film which tugs at the heart and evokes an examination of conscience.
Much like Eastwood’s other recent films, Richard Jewell depends heavily on characterization, and the ensemble cast delivers. Hauser nails the lead performance, appearing — first and foremost — as a social misfit, one who could logically be a lone bomber suspect. Yet, in so doing, Hauser’s portrayal of Jewell is controlled and deliberate, subtly displaying the irregular eye movements and labored speech of a man who seeks to protect the public. Hauser refrains from going overboard to the point of acting like Of Mice and Men’s Lennie Small or the title character in Forrest Gump. Later in the film, he exhibits Jewell’s self-confidence to push back and defend himself. Despite the horrific accusations against him, Jewell remains throughout a man of quiet integrity.
Standing beside Jewell through thick and thin are his mother, Barbara “Bobi” Jewell (Kathy Bates), and his lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Bates delivers a fantastic performance as Jewell’s mother, swinging from the emotional high of seeing a long-suffering son hailed as a hero to hearing her beloved Tom Brokaw declare him to be an all but certain terrorist. She is a victim of FBI brutality and humiliation (liker Richard) as they haul away her precious Tupperware and underwear. All Bobi wants is for her son to do his best in the world, and for him to be safe and occasionally happy. She guides, nourishes and protects him as well as she can. Bobi serves to channel the audience’s empathy towards Richard as a better understanding of his character surfaces.
Rockwell shines as Bryant, the attorney who takes the time to interact with Jewell as a human being. They bond through video games and Snickers bars. When Jewell initially calls upon this underemployed lawyer to serve as his defense counsel, there is justice in the reward of the high profile case. Regardless of the national spotlight and notoriety which Bryant gains, his service to Jewell is an act of mercy and compassion which fuels his wolf-like aggression in confronting the establishment in Jewell’s defense. A portrait of wolves appropriately hangs in Bryant’s office, along with a banner that reads, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” Rockwell’s rendition of Watson is similar to that of Gary Sinise’s portrayal of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump and George Milton in Of Mice and Men. He is quick-witted, sharp and quick-tempered, spouting to the FBI agents, “I know you can do this. I know you have a search warrant, but I tell you this, if you were doing this to me, you would have to fight me. You would have to beat the shit out of me.” Bryant works Jewell into rightful rage against the system he trusts, thinking the security guard is too ignorant to understand the contempt the system has for him. Jewell explains that he knows full well others take him for a fool, but he has no choice but to be himself, and follow his conscience and deep beliefs. Jewell reveals he chose Bryant as his attorney because, unlike most people, Bryant doesn’t call him names like Tubby or Michelin man. This use of both verbal and physical texture goes a long way in portraying how both men organically learn to respect the other’s integrity.
The only thing marring this excellent film is Eastwood’s decision to portray The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) as exchanging sex for the name of the bombing suspect, Jewell, from FBI agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). This tactic is not a documented, proven fact. While attempting to right the wrong of injustice perpetrated upon Jewell, Eastwood may, himself, unjustly tarnish the memory of the deceased Scruggs. The danger of a drama based upon an actual happening is that the audience is never sure which elements of the story are completely factual or not. Wilde gives a fine performance as an arrogant, ambitious and clawing reporter, independent of the sexual implications. Just as Scruggs, the FBI and 1996 society easily presuppose that Jewell is a desperate man who would stoop to feign a terrorist act to seek attention, Eastwood, screenwriter Ray and any un-startled Richard Jewell viewers in 2019 presuppose that successful business women stoop to prostituting themselves to get ahead.
When it comes to special effects, the incorporation of actual footage taken from 1996 Olympic Centennial Park Concert is somewhat weak, but time, place and setting improve with the “Macarena” dance. Pyrotechnics expert Barry Hart and special effects coordinator Bryan Brimecobe from Eastwood’s last film, The Mule, both returned for Richard Jewell. Using masterful trade skills, they effectively portray a bomb explosion, one that’s more unnerving than Thanos’ death snap in Avengers: Infinity War or any recent monster movie blood bath. Practical effects still have a need and purpose. The use of fake TV filtering in the depiction of Bryant’s interview by Today’s Bryant Gumbel (Garon Grigsby) is especially impressive. The other major tech highlight is the injection of Hauser’s voice onto video of the actual subject’s face.
Richard Jewell is, for the most part, a captivating recreation of a man’s journey through hell and back. Its strong acting and character relationship dynamics are the main selling points, as Eastwood’s sense of direction and pacing are the best they have been in a long time. While justice prevails in the end, the prevalence of intolerance and disdain for those who do not fit society’s norms is an ongoing injustice. Perhaps Richard Jewell will awaken this reality in viewers and lead to higher standards for authority figures.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.