Based on the true story of the security guard who was at first praised for his heroic actions during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing and then dragged through the mud as a suspect, Richard Jewell is easily director Clint Eastwood’s best film since 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima. Although problematic in some areas, the movie tells Jewell’s story in understated yet often heart-rending terms, and is powered by knockout performances from Paul Walter Houser as Jewell, Sam Rockwell as attorney C. Watson Bryant, and Kathy Bates as Richard’s proud and anguished mother, Barbara “Bobi” Jewell.
Having just premiered at AFI Fest, the film immediately establishes who Jewell is: an overweight yet generally good-hearted oddball who dreams of working in law enforcement. He’s a guy who spends his time reading the Georgia Penal Code because he finds it interesting. In fact, his short-lived stint as a campus police officer at a local college goes to his head as he pushes students around and overreaches on his duties, leading to a dismissal that will come back to haunt him years later.
Jewell is working security on the night of July 27, 1996 at a concert in Centennial Olympic Park, the public space built expressly for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It is there he spies a suspicious backpack underneath a bench near the base of a concert sound tower. Jewell alerts Georgia Bureau of Investigation officers, who determine that the backpack is filled with explosives. At the same time, a call comes into 911 from a male voice warning that the bomb will go off within 30 minutes. But it’s just a few minutes after the call is made, as Jewell and GBI officers are evacuating the park, that the bomb explodes, killing one person (a second, a news cameraman, dies of a heart attack) and injuring 111.
As it becomes evident that more could have died, Jewell is at first lauded as a hero for his actions, interviewed on TV, and even offered a book deal. But then the dean of the college where he worked calls the local FBI office, headed by Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and informs them of Jewell’s troubling campus police stint.
Suddenly, Jewell fits the profile of the “false hero”: a lone, white male desperate for attention and fame, interested in the law and weaponry, who may have planted the bomb himself in order to make himself look like a hero by rescuing as many as he can before it goes off. The suspicion soon lands at the local newspaper where reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is hungry for a scoop. The resulting front page story leads to a devastating media feeding frenzy around Jewell and his mother, all while the FBI attempts to entrap the young man.
Eastwood’s non-showy, uncluttered narrative style is enormously effective in Richard Jewell, advancing the story in stark, clear terms while giving plenty of space for the performances by the three stars. Houser, who played similar roles in BlackkKlansman and I, Tonya, is outstanding as Jewell. The script by Billy Ray does not make a saint out of this simple, unassuming man: he is prone to a bit of self-aggrandization and doesn’t know when to shut his mouth for his own good, much to his attorney’s frustration. But he very clearly also wants to do the right thing at all times, has a genuine passion for what he wants, and an unconditional love for his mother. Houser’s performance makes him instantly empathetic as an ordinary guy thrust unexpectedly into overwhelming circumstances.
Rockwell, one of the very best actors out there right now, is also terrific as Bryant, an avowed libertarian (he’s got a “I fear the government more than I fear terrorism” sticker hanging above his desk) who’s also in over his head but whose sense of righteousness is awakened by what the FBI is putting his client through. His loyalty and friendship to Jewell never wavers, even as the latter unwittingly plays into the government’s hands. Bates is enormously sympathetic, adding nuance to a role that on the surface might seem somewhat one-dimensional.
It’s with the character of Scruggs that Eastwood, Ray, and Wilde run into serious problems. There is no evidence that the real Scruggs, who died in 2001 at the age of 42, traded sex for information with a law enforcement agent (Hamm’s composite character), although that is what the film alleges. But even without that troubling and superfluous wrinkle, Scruggs here is seen as scheming, obnoxious, cruel, and overly ambitious–a caricature of not just a career woman but a working journalist that is all too pointed itself in an age when the free press is under attack from the government sworn by the Constitution to defend it.
It’s true that the media, along with that government (whose representation by Hamm is more understated but just as villainous), had a lot to atone for in the case of Richard Jewell–and to some degree did, with the Journal-Constitution later publishing the story that helped chart a course for his exoneration. And there’s certainly room to explore Scruggs’ motivations in pursuing the Jewell lead so vociferously. But there has to be a better way than making the character into all but a witch, and implying that she somehow represents her entire profession.
It’s a jarring and unfortunate note in an otherwise masterfully directed movie–especially the first half. The bombing sequence is incredibly well executed, a brilliantly sustained exercise in build-up and tension, and the steady accumulation of details as Jewell’s situation worsens effectively blends melodrama, humor and tragedy.
The second half of the movie does begin to flag, however; many of the later scenes revolve around Jewell, his mother, and Bryant sitting in the Jewells’ apartment, barricaded from the media outside. There is a moment of triumph in the FBI office where Jewell, his anger fully awakened at last, essentially reads the riot act to Shaw and his cohorts, his often previously dull eyes flashing with pain and fury. But lacking a truly cathartic climax, Richard Jewell just gradually winds down.
Nevertheless, its missteps don’t stop Richard Jewell from being an absorbing drama and character study that is both moving and resonant. Its heavy-handed portrayal of the press and government as the bad guys does not mitigate the fact that the media and FBI did do wrong by Jewell (who died in 2007), and the film’s essential message is an avowedly non-partisan one. At the age of 89, Clint Eastwood is still capable of making remarkable films, and Richard Jewell is one of them.
Richard Jewell is out in theaters on Dec. 13.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye