Clint Eastwood has made the most iconoclastic film of the year. Based on a true story, Richard Jewell has two basic messages: the FBI is corrupt and the media lies or distorts the truth. Toss in the offensive (and defamatory) depiction of a female reporter and you have a real barn-burner of a movie. Then again, those are the very same elements that make it weirdly compelling. Eastwood is a hard-to-peg guy in many respects, which is one of the qualities that most makes him an intriguing director. You never know what you're gonna get, but you know you're gonna get something.
Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) plays the title character, a guy who desperately, obsessively wants to get into law enforcement yet never quite finds entry. The best he gets is working security at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. There, he spies an abandoned backpack. Jewell insists that it be checked out. Three massive pipe bombs are in there. They explode before they can be defused, causing a number of people to be injured. More would have perished had he not helped evacuate the area.
At first, he's a hero. Then FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) gets word that Jewell was a bit of a loose cannon during a previous stint as a college security officer. Shaw decides, after looking further into his background, that he fits the profile of someone who commits a crime in order to look like a hero. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) knows the FBI has a suspect, so she offers to have sex with Shaw in exchange for the name, as she has apparently done to get other leads. (Those who knew the late Skruggs insist this is utter nonsense.)
Suddenly, Jewell is being surveilled by the intelligence community, hounded by the media, and scorned by the public. He attempts to clear his name with the help of lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) and with the support of his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates).
Aside from the problematic depiction of Skruggs, Richard Jewell suffers from being a simplified version of this riveting true story. Most of the general facts are there, yet the events are relayed in Eastwood's trademark straightforward, no-frills style. Given that Jewell was completely exonerated, his biopic needed to go into greater depth about how faulty thinking led to him becoming a suspect. The portrayal of the media, meanwhile, is pretty generic. Sensationalism sells? Yeah, we know that. If Eastwood and writer Billy Ray were going to take the FBI and the media to task, a more detailed, original approach would have made it all hit home a lot harder.
In spite of that, Richard Jewell mostly works, thanks to the performances and the portrayal of the title character. Hauser is fantastic as Jewell, playing him as a guy whose reverence for law enforcement makes it difficult to get mad at the very people who are making his life a living hell. The actor gives this man a quirky, oddball touch that slightly fills in the gap in the thin look at why the FBI suspected him. Hauser's Jewell is a little shifty, so we understand why investigators might be suspicious of him, even though we know he was cleared.
The role of the worried mother is a cliché by now, but Kathy Bates transcends it, bringing real compassion to Bobi. Through her efforts, we witness a woman aching over what her son is being dragged through. Sam Rockwell continues a string of strong recent work, giving Bryant a sense of bemusement to match his take-no-prisoners style of defense. The movie has some humorous interactions between the lawyer and his client, as Jewell tends to unintentionally undermine the legal advice he is given. At times it even seems like it's a borderline buddy comedy, despite the heavy subject matter and finger-pointing.
Strong work from the actors coupled with Eastwood's you-never-can-tell approach keep Richard Jewell entertaining. The film isn't as in-depth as it might have been, and it certainly doesn't have the intellectual impact it clearly desires. It is, however, a well-acted look at one of the most notable injustices of modern times.
out of four
Richard Jewell is rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.