Richard Jewell Movie Review
From the guy who had an extremely awkward conversation with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention comes a movie that attacks two of the GOP’s favorite and wrongly maligned targets: the FBI and the media. Yet, amazingly, Richard Jewell is Clint Eastwood’s most complete, entertaining and disconcerting film in at least half a decade.
Paul Walter Hauser, best known for playing the weird, wannabe hit man in I, Tonya, stars as the title character, an awkward, largely unlikable security guard who, if you unfortunately found yourself stuck with him at a party, would immediately think he’s a douchebag who likes to talk way too much about police tactics.
The impressive thing about Hauser, Eastwood, and screenwriter Billy Ray is that despite Jewell’s personal attributes—the same attributes that made him a target of the FBI for his role in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing—they manage to make him a convincingly sympathetic character. Hauser is downright terrific, finding the perfect balance between highlighting the man’s deficiencies and portraying him as someone who didn’t deserve the treatment he ultimately received.
Sam Rockwell is also very good as his tenacious attorney, while Kathy Bates does what Kathy Bates does as his mother.
Richard Jewell, the movie, is Eastwood’s most impressive movie in years. Straightforward and told with earnest, Eastwood does a fine job of establishing Jewell’s character, portraying the bombing, and weaving an engrossing tale that shows the dangers of a 24/7 news cycle. Unlike Eastwood’s recent, real-life films—the shockingly awful The 15:17 to Paris and the shockingly bland Sully—Richard Jewell feels like a complete movie, one not defined by a single, extraordinary event (a terrorist attack and plane crash, respectively) but by the days and weeks that followed.
For the most part, Eastwood doesn’t let his politics show, even if the timing of the movie does seem to align to the current “the media can’t be trusted ever” mantra of the right wing. Where the movie falters is when Eastwood just can’t help himself; Olivia Wilde’s portrayal of journalist Kathy Scruggs, who broke the story that the FBI was investigating Jewell, is downright dreadful, and ultimately only Eastwood is to blame. The media is understandably a villain in the story, but Eastwood and his audience would have been better served had he sought a more complex exploration of the media’s motives. Rather than channel all of the media’s awfulness into one individual—she has sex with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to get information, an unlikely development that is, notably, not based on real events—Eastwood could have shifted his focus to the media bosses, the demand for constant news, and the dawning age of the Internet.
As is, and as entertaining as the movie as a whole is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Richard Jewell is a surface-level affair. Its lack of nuance, and unwillingness to paint a more complex portrait of a complex situation—the FBI was right to investigate Jewell, but not right to leak such an investigation due to lack of evidence or real motive; the media was right to report that Jewell was being investigated (he was), but they turned an innocent man into a villain; and Richard Jewell had a less than reputable background, but he was innocent, and, in reality, a man who saved dozens of lives—keeps it from being something more, something greater.
Even with some faults, Richard Jewell is one of the better movies of 2019, an accessible and intriguing cautionary tale worth seeing.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.