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Richard Jewell (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Richard Jewell


Starring Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez, Wayne Duvall, Charles Green, Mike Pniewski, Grant Roberts, Alan Heckner, Desmond Phillips, Alex Collins, Michael Otis, Izzy Herbert, Kelly Collins Lintz, Jonathan D Bergman, Eric Mendenhali and David Shae.

Screenplay by Billy Ray.

Directed by Clint Eastwood.

Distributed by Warner Bros. 131 minutes. Rated R.

Richard Jewell is the epitome of a tragic hero. One day by chance, he stumbled into true heroism. As a security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he found an abandoned backpack near the soundstage at a celebratory concert. (Uninteresting trivia fact: the band that was playing at the time was Jack Mack and the Heart Attack.) Most of the police and law enforcement thought it was probably just the property of one of the concert goers.

However, Jewell, who had been trying unsuccessfully to get into law enforcement for a decade, was made deeply uneasy by it. The bomb squad was called, and it was a homemade pipe bomb. Jewell helped to abandon the area and helped to save the lives of many people (but not everyone) when the bomb exploded.

Jewell reacted humbly and surprised when he was declared a hero for his part in the affair, saying that it was a group effort. For a few days, he was an international idol.

However, because he was a little odd – quirky, overweight, a bit of a mama’s boy, a law-and-order wannabe, a gun enthusiast, overly solicitous – he quickly became the top suspect in the crime. Within a matter of days, his was in the middle of a media circus and life was destroyed. He was looked at with scorn and derision for the rest of his days.

Even after the real bomber confessed years later, probably about half of the people who had an opinion on the matter still thought that Jewell was probably the bomber. (It didn’t help that the real bomber’s confession got much less notice than the lynch mob mentality that came after Jewell originally.)

In an ad for the film, director Clint Eastwood calls Jewell’s story on of the great tragedies of recent years. Eastwood is being somewhat hyperbolic but is not totally wrong. The story brings out the best in Eastwood as a filmmaker – he always has a good eye for true stories but tends to be a bit of a dull storyteller – making one of his best films ever. Unlike museum pieces like Flags of My Father or slightly muddled social commentary like Sully, Richard Jewell feels real, it breathes, and is quietly insightful.

Of course, Eastwood, bless his conservative little heart, must heap all the scorn and responsibility he can on the FBI and the media. This is not to say that both did not deserve to be criticized for their roles in this affair; they do. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has had to file a formal complaint for the way that Richard Jewell portrayed the late journalist Kathy Scruggs as a talentless, unfeeling, unethical hack who was more than willing to trade sex for information. Jewell’s real-life lawyer has acknowledged that there was no reason to believe that there was any accuracy to that representation. That is a little tone deaf for a film that is based on the true story of a man whose life and reputation was forever besmirched due to false accusations.

Still, if you overlook this flaw, Richard Jewell is an arresting film; smart, savvy, a little depressing and sometimes surprisingly funny. And the acting is just terrific.

This is particularly surprising because the title character is played by a relatively unknown actor. Paul Walter Hauser is probably best known for his breakout role as Jeff Gilooly’s stupid co-conspirator in another film about a 1990s media circus – last year’s I Tonya. He also appeared in BlacKkKlansman (also based on a true story, hmmm…) and for recurring roles on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the Karate Kid spin off web series Cobra Kai.

Hauser’s lack of name recognition is highlighted by the fact that he gets fifth billing in a movie in which he plays the title character; the main character. (I have rectified that slight above, putting him first in the cast listing, where he belongs.) He may not be a huge star, but he nails the role and holds Richard Jewell together. He plays a complicated man and makes you feel for him – you may not always agree with him, but you know his heart was in the right place.

Kathy Bates gets her best role in years as his mother Bobbie; a sweet, smart, loving and protective mama bear whose life is also unmoored as her son is vilified. Sam Rockwell is terrific as Jewell’s flawed but loyal defense attorney – however, he’s just playing a typical Rockwell character, as is Jon Hamm as the single-minded federal agent who is certain that Jewell is the bomber. Olivia Wilde is good as reporter Scruggs as written – but as noted above the character is broadly constructed and a slightly stereotypical archetype.

However, they are not the soul of Richard Jewell. It is the sad, confused face of Hauser when he realizes that even though he has done everything right, in his finest moment he is being vilified by a world which only looks at him superficially.

Richard Jewell died too young in 2007, a man somewhat exonerated but still untrusted and tainted in history. All of this is because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he followed his instincts and morals. No matter what you may think of him, there are people alive in the world who would not be, just because Richard Jewell was doing his job and did it well.

This movie is worth seeing if for no other reason because it reminds the world of that fact.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: December 14, 2019.

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