No good deed comes without a price and that is something evident in the new Clint Eastwood drama, Richard Jewell. Clint Eastwood has always been a favorite of mine, whether as an actor or director, and I always look forward to seeing what he makes next. Richard Jewell is another winner by this icon of cinema. Telling the story of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombings, this movie is insightful, heartbreaking and showcases some great performances regarding the tragic smearing of one man’s life- that man being Richard Jewell.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) always dreamed of being in law enforcement. He reads the penal code every night and thinks of nothing but protecting people and upholding the law. Jewell starts out as a supply clerk where he meets and befriends Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer who would represent him years later following the bombing. He lives with his mother Barbara “Bobi” (Kathy Bates) in a rather small apartment and she always supports her son and cares for him. He works security now that the Olympic games are underway in Atlanta and enjoys the job, managing stage grounds where performers sing their songs while the crowd cheers on and ensures everything is safe. That’s his job.
Richard is a very nice guy. He likes to talk to police officers and takes his job very seriously. Even though he’s just a security guard, he still considers himself to be a member of law enforcement. July 27, 1996 is the night when everything changed. Upon stopping some kids for breaking bottles and being drunk, Richard notices a backpack under a park bench. He marks it as a suspicious package and calls police to the scene when some of them blow it off calling it a “backpack full of beer.” Richard urges the officers to clear the area and have the backpack examined where it’s confirmed to be loaded with three pipe bombs. Authorities attempt to clear the area in a cordial and safe way but ultimately the bombs detonate.
Watching the retelling of events such as these are always terrifying for me because you know that something is going to happen. The suspense of the bombing sequence reminded me of when I saw Patriot’s Day and, when that bomb went off, I jumped in my seat. People are injured, smoke fills the air and everyone is in a state of panic. Clint Eastwood brilliantly films this sequence that feels like we are really there in the moment as it happened.
Shortly after the bombing, the world knows Richard Jewell’s name and he’s hailed as a hero for discovering the threat and alerting authorities. That nice and all but a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is looking for a hot story and finds something involving Jewell. Now, there has been some talk regarding Scruggs’ representation as someone who will even offer sex to get information, a rather unethical journalistic practice. This has been disputed by co-workers and friends and unfortunately Scruggs died in 2001, so she’s not here to defend herself. From what I’ve read she was a reporter was willing to do whatever it took to get the story she was seeking. Discussions on the trope of female reporters who sleep with sources should be held, but I think her role in the film still works.
Thematically, Wilde acts as a symbol of how journalism’s need for a story sometimes proves more important than the actual story. Her article outed Richard as a potential FBI subject of interest and basically accused him of placing that backpack on the park grounds. That information might have been gathered from an FBI agent, but it was her responsibility as a reporter to confirm the facts first, yet the story was run anyway. I do love (or feel regretful) how Richard Jewell shows the consequences of what this front-page story does to Richard’s life. He’s outed by the media with reporters camping outside his apartment. He can’t leave the house without being bombarded with questions and even his mother feels the stress of hearing her son’s name on the news as a possible perpetrator.
Kathy Bates is another great actress Eastwood selected who performs magnificently here. She’s shaken to her core and finds her whole world flipped upside down because of these events, believing in her son’s innocence and simply wanting people to to remember him as the man who saved countless lives that night. Rockwell is also very good as the lawyer who takes Richard’s case and also displays a generous amount of patience when dealing with his client.
Remember when I said that Richard is a nice guy? Well he’s a bit too nice, especially to law enforcement looking to pin him as the man who orchestrated this attack. He’s told repeatedly to not talk the FBI and continues to do so simply to help out. It’s only until too late that Richard realizes that they are using various tricks in the book to give reason for his arrest. I also can’t forget about Jon Hamm as the FBI agent who seems like a nice guy but really has a job to do. Could you imagine being on house arrest even though you weren’t legally told you were? Richard Jewell lived in his apartment while reporters waited outside like a pack of wild vultures. His life and freedom were basically taken away for the sake of “trial-by-media” spectacle.
As a director, Eastwood tells a great story that’s very easy to follow. Screenwriter Billy Ray has crafted excellent dialogue and moments that feel both terrifying and heartbreaking, creating a character piece of a man who was just doing his job when lives were at risk, yet paid an unneeded price. Richard Jewell was a hero but it took forever to clear his name and lived a life of hell during the relentless investigation by the FBI.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 Stars
Not only is Richard Jewell a great drama, but it’s a sad retelling of the constant hounding one man faced by a public who wanted answers at the expense of truth. Effectively, it was a character assault on someone who wanted nothing more than to do the right thing. All the actors are great, the script is fantastic and Eastwood’s direction flows smoothly without ever feeling tedious. Paul Walter Hauser brings a commanding performance on the screen as the man who was unjustly pursued and somehow kept it all together. With the 2019 movie calendar coming to a close, Richard Jewell is one film to not miss and proof that Clint Eastwood isn’t close to retiring anytime soon.