Who exactly is Richard Jewell? That is the question that this film of the same name seeks to answer – or rather, amend. First and foremost, Jewell is the latest in the line of modern, plain-clothes American heroes that director Clint Eastwood has celebrated in his later years – think Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper or Tom Hanks’s Sully, but with less star power. In the real world, Richard Jewell was a security guard who discovered a bomb under a bench in Centennial Park during a concert to celebrate the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Though his actions did not completely stop any bloodshed, his obsessive attention to police detail (formed through a lifetime of idolizing law enforcement) minimized the casualties – two deaths and 111 injuries among the thousands of spectators. However, due to his personal life bearing a resemblance to the profile of other recent “lone bombers” he was subjugated to 88 days of intense police and media investigation – despite his profound innocence.
The biggest strength of this film lies in its casting. As the closest things to villains that the film offers, the all-American Jon Hamm and the uncompromising Olivia Wilde serve as figureheads of “the two most powerful forces in the world: the United States Government, and the media.” As FBI Agent Tom Shaw and Atlanta Journal reporter Kathy Scruggs respectively, both infuriate in their blind crusade to paint Jewell as “the bad guy”, but serve as perfect foils to the film’s protagonists.
As has become commonplace, Sam Rockwell dominates as Watson Bryant, a lawyer who befriended Jewell in the years before his work as a security guard. Bryant serves as both protector and representative for the wronged hero, and Rockwell once again thrives as the outspoken agent of the anti-establishment, this time desperate to prove innocence and deliver justice. He’s complimented by Jewell’s much more reserved mother Bobi, a Southern matron played to perfection by Kathy Bates who wins her Oscar nomination in a single, brave press conference scene. The sharpness of all this casting borders on typecasting, but the ensemble nature of this supporting cast all serve to heighten the role of its main character.
That main character is played by Paul Walter Hauser, breakout star of I, Tonya and Blackkklansman, two roles that have given him some experience performing a mid-placed “correctness”. However, Jewell’s unusual ideology isn’t a result of arrogance or bigotry, but instead born of an earnest devotion to protecting people – even in the face of personal adversity and ridicule. Hauser’s appearance and the mindsets of his characters set him up for mockery, and Eastwood cleverly marries that notion with his slightly-recognisable star power to invite audiences to react to his lead in the same way that Shaw, Scruggs and the entire country did in 1996. He is constantly in danger of being displaced as the central character by the more established (and skilled) players around him; yet, when the moment inevitably comes, Hauser is allowed to regain some form of control to Jewell’s own destiny. There are only small windows in the film where character and actor are allowed to unleash a previously-unknown dramatic display of power and confidence, and whilst the scarcity of these scenes undoubtedly heightens their effect, it does not make them any less impressive.
There are, of course, always flaws and controversies within any retelling or restaging of famous events – and outside of performance, this film has more than a few. The attempt to establish the time period is a little heavy-handed, resulting in clumsy iconography – like the brazen use of President Bill Clinton on television screens. The central restaging of the actual explosion is undeniably terrifying and genuinely bloody, but the moments leading up to it are full of red herrings and wooden performances from the background extras. Shocks replaces tension, but only because the devices used to portray the latter are a little tired.
The key controversy comes from Olivia Wilde’s portrayal of the late Kathy Scruggs, and in her character comes perhaps the surest warning that context is key in a historical retelling; within a biopic, artistic license and dramatisation is not just unavoidable but also entirely necessary. Though the seedy scene in the midst of this issue does rightly suggest an ignorance of the current social climate, it’s one of many tropes of corruption that Scruggs and Shaw descend to in their ambush of Richard Jewell. These real-life characters thus often descend towards stereotypes, and yet there is irony in all this debate; a degree of responsibility is always due to characters’ real life counterparts, but that the concern surrounds the media portrayal of those who hijacked an innocent man’s public profile cannot be avoided, nor understated.
Often it is impossible to avoid a western metaphor when Clint Eastwood is involved, and if there is one to be tied to this film, it is this: Richard Jewell is not the gun-slinging, spotlight-seeking John Wayne lawman from Rio Bravo that the media wanted him to be. He is instead the reluctant, if thorough and decent, protector of High Noon Gary Cooper. Similarly, Richard Jewell is a fine and respectable period film typical of this time of year, yet just isn’t dynamic enough to stand out. It is at times emotional and shocking, a well-told and often rewarding tale of justice – however, just like Jewell himself, is in no danger of setting the world on fire.