FILM REVIEW – RICHARD JEWELL. With Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates. Written by Billy Ray. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images. 129 minutes.
In his biography of actor/director Clint Eastwood, Richard Schickel points to “Unforgiven” (1992) as a turning point for many critics. It was for this one. Never a fan of the actor or his forays into directing, that film showed a command of the medium and a new depth to his characters that, in retrospect, seems like one of the most amazing transformations in Hollywood.
Now, at 89 – a time when others might have retired or penned their memoirs – Eastwood is back with his seventh film of the decade. RICHARD JEWELL might seem like the politically conservative filmmaker timed it deliberately, with the FBI and the media playing the heavies, but that would be misreading it. This is a true story in which the government and the press did get it wrong, and a tenacious lawyer has to fight for what’s right.
During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a bomb went off, and Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser of “I, Tonya”), a local security guard, is credited with discovering it and saving lives by helping to clear the area before it exploded. In the subsequent investigation, however, Jewell finds himself treated not as a hero, but as the chief suspect. Ultimately exonerated, he went through a period where he was publicly identified as a “person of interest” after FBI investigators leaked it to the press.
As depicted here, Jewell seems to be on the autism spectrum, pursuing a career in law enforcement although not always acting or thinking clearly. The theory was that he was a “lone bomber” who set up a situation where he could be the hero. Being a suspect would be harrowing to anyone, but to Jewell it becomes a situation for him to see those trying to pin the crime on him as fellow law enforcement people, voluntarily providing them with further “proof” of his supposed guilt.
The bad guys here – other than the actual bomber who was convicted several years later – are the FBI, led by Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and the media, represented by reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who will do whatever it takes for a juicy story. Their sins are being so focused on proving Jewell’s guilt that they filter out everything else. Jewell and his mother (Kathy Bates) undergo humiliation upon humiliation, including intrusive searches of their home, and a media circus outside of their apartment building. The good guy is Watson Bryan (Sam Rockwell), presented as a cantankerous attorney who sets up his own practice because he doesn’t want to deal with partners who might restrict his action. Jewell had crossed paths with him in an earlier job, and Bryan sees that Jewell is being railroaded without the ability to act in his own best interests.
In telling the story, Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray want us to sympathize with someone who performed a heroic act but wasn’t a conventional looking or sounding hero. Far from being political, this is a story of one person (and his mother and attorney) going up against the system and prevailing. It’s an important reminder of one our most fundamental rights: that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.