By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
It is 1996 and security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is working a concert venue on the grounds of the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Jewell is a large man with a mixed employment record, having lost his job as a police officer and several security jobs before this. He is nevertheless dedicated to his work, albeit perhaps a bit overzealous at times. When he spots a backpack sitting underneath a bench just inside the venue, he first looks for its owners, but none being found, he takes the standard precautions he has been taught to take, calling for backup and trying to move the crowd away from the bag. His fellow guards and the police in the area show little enthusiasm for the task, believing it to be just a lost backpack. Jewell’s caution is proved to be correct; however, as the backpack is soon found to contain a pipe bomb, and despite the best efforts of law enforcement, the device explodes, killing two and injuring 111 others. At first Jewell is hailed as a hero, as his efforts undoubtedly saved more lives from danger. However, word leaks to the press that the FBI is investigating Jewell, and he finds himself demonized overnight.
Jewell deserved better than this, pure and simple.
Jewell is thrust into the public eye before the judge and jury of the entertainment-driven news media. Jewell enlists the help of an attorney and old acquaintance named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who quickly realizes the raw deal Jewell has been given and devotes all of his resources to defending his client.
I’m going to dispense with this first: Much has been made in the media about the film’s treatment of reporter Kathy Scruggs. The talking points claim that the film makes her look like she traded sex for a story. I completely disagree with the reasoning. Certainly the film doesn’t paint Scruggs in a particularly positive light, but it does make it clear that her and the FBI agent involved had some sort of pre-existing relationship. Even if this isn’t historical fact either (and that is something we’ll probably never know for sure), there is no malice in the depiction. It is worth noting that Olivia Wilde’s performance as Scruggs is quite intriguing. As the film moves along, her character actually goes through a quietly nuanced arc. She begins the film as a blindly career-focused climber, desperate for the big front-page story to launch her career into the national spotlight. She discovers a story that can do this, and stands behind it for probably far longer than she should out of pride. Over time, she realizes the impact of her actions and the reality behind the story, and becomes despondent. Even though she clearly starts off the film unlikable; by the end you empathize with her situation, as she really was swept up in the circus of her own creation.
Now then, lets get on with the rest of this review.
Director Clint Eastwood is too often accused of not having a “style” and this is patently untrue. Eastwood’s style is very performer-based; he trusts his cast, crew, and the written material to speak loudly while he captures the results cleanly and efficiently. Richard Jewell is an excellent example of this. Eastwood as a director gets most of his hardest work done in pre-production by assembling the right people for the job. His lead Paul Walter Hauser has never had to carry a film as lead, but that doesn’t matter, because he is backed by the full faith and credit of a director that trusts his instincts implicitly.
This is a film about instincts that saved lives.
Hauser’s performance as Jewell is perhaps career-defining for the actor. A lesser performer might make Jewell out to be a comical figure, a dopey “good old boy” stereotype, or worse. Instead, Jewell is simply a homebody whose social quirks make him somewhat of an outcast. He is judged and even bullied by many around him, which has left him deferential to authority figures and bullies. As the film progresses and he is put more and more on the defensive, he finally starts to grow up.
Sam Rockwell is at his best as Jewell’s Attorney Watson Bryant. A crucial early scene in the film establishes his character well. Bryant is a rookie attorney working for a firm in a cubicle and is feeling like a small fish in a pond full of sharks. At the time, Jewell is working at the firm in a lowly “gopher” role, distributing supplies and running odd jobs for the lawyers. Bryant realizes that as bad as he’s got it, Jewell deals with worse every day, and keeps a positive attitude through it all. Bryant’s demeanor feels parental at first, but gradually develops as he pushes Jewell more and more to take ownership of his situation and fight for himself.
You do not want to make Momma Kathy Bates cry…
The film’s one falling-off point is in the less than nuanced way it treats the FBI investigators, who are depicted as blindly pursuing Jewell in the face of pretty obvious evidence that suggests his innocence. The script should have beefed up this element of the story. It would have been particularly interesting if they showed more of the investigation, so the audience would understand why Jewell was under such suspicion. While it is unquestionable that Jewell was an innocent man, the fact that the FBI had him under such heavy scrutiny should have been treated more evenhandedly. The truth is an investigator will look at the people closely associated with any incident first, if only to eliminate the obvious. While they got things very wrong in this instance, the implication that they were doing so out of malice seems cheapening.
Richard Jewell is both a fascinating examination of our often reactionary “trial by media” culture, as well as a deep character exploration of a flawed but well-meaning hero.
Richard Jewell (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever Richard is shown eating junk food
Take a Drink: for FBI men meeting in dark rooms
Do a Shot: for media circus crowds
Take a Drink: for soft piano music