A film review by Craig J. Koban December 25, 2019

RICHARD JEWELL  jjj

2019, R, 129 mins.

 

Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell  /  Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant  /  Kathy Bates as Bobi Jewell  /  Jon Hamm as Tom Shaw  /  Olivia Wilde as Kathy Scruggs  /  Nina Arianda as Nadya

Directed by Clint Eastwood  /  Written by Billy Ray

The new fact-based drama RICHARD JEWELL is a flawed, but modest return to form for director Clint Eastwood after a recent string of misfires like THE MULE and the disastrously awful THE 15:17 TO PARIS.  The 89-year-old director's 41st film behind the camera is a thoroughly enthralling - albeit with many problematic caveats - chronicle of Richard Jewell, the American security guard that became famous during the 1996 Centennial Park Olympic bombings in Atlanta, Georgia, during which time he was initially hailed as a hero for saving lives, but later became a false prime suspect by the FBI (he was eventually found innocent, but not after his life was nearly crushed in the ensuing media firestorm).  RICHARD JEWELL is captivating in large part to an Oscar worthy turn by Paul Walter Hauser in the titular role, but the film's aggressively simplistic handling of media politics (and one journalist in particular) really dramatically holds the film back at times. 

Jewell was indeed a hero, but his path towards that was an incredibly bumpy one.  He discovered a backpack on Olympic Park grounds containing three pipe bombs, and it was his alerting of authorities and the subsequent evacuation of most of the people in harm's way that indeed spared countless souls.  Unfortunately for Jewell, the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper started running reports that he was being potentially targeted as a suspect by the FBI and police, which led to a "trial by media" that nearly convicted the poor sap and ruined him.  He was never officially charged, but the whole ordeal left Jewell and his family broken.  In the aftermath of this hellish ordeal, Jewell was eventually and publicly thanked in 2006 by Governor Sonny Perdue.  Jewell later died the following year due to heart failure at the age of 44. 

All of this is, of course, incredibly intriguing material for big screen appropriation, and Eastwood - with screenwriter Billy Ray - sees the tragic story of Jewell through a viewfinder of portraying law enforcement and the media as the villains and shows the immense power of both in terms of swaying public opinion of a man towards guilt, despite all evidence pointing towards his absolute innocence.  RICHARD JEWELL is set well before the advance of social media, but its themes here as a relevant as ever.  It rightfully shows how just about any ordinary person can be propped up for instant overnight hero worship, but can also be reduced to hated villain by the same media in no time as well.  Jewell's story is, undoubtedly, a truly frightening cautionary parable about defenseless citizens that have to face the combined might of government and news powers that are out to get them using an any means necessary approach.  There have been so many movies over the years (like recent Oscar Best Picture winning SPOTLIGHT) that rightfully portrays journalists as unwavering heroes and pursuers of the greater truth, but RICHARD JEWELL is the antithesis to that: it alarming relays how good people can be smeared and ruined for the sake of selling papers. 

 

 

Eastwood and Ray approach Jewell's story with the director's trademark filmmaking economy and simplicity, although the handling of some of the factual details surround this narrative of one man emerging triumphant over the establishment is, as mentioned,  awkwardly dealt with.  Of the important details that the film doesn't fudge is in its overall portrayal of Jewell, who's not shown here as a one-note saint caught between a massive rock and a hard place.  When we meet Jewell (Hauser) he's a man struggling to find a place within law enforcement, a dream vocation that frustratingly alludes him.  He was recently fired by a local Atlanta college, which forced him to take an offer of working a low rent security detail at Centennial Park for the upcoming Olympics.  Of course, he takes this gig as seriously as a proverbial heart attack, which makes him the butt of petty jokes for the police on the scene, but things change when he uncovers the aforementioned explosive device.  Jewell is hailed for his bravery early on, but a hostilely determined FBI agent (a quietly menacing Jon Hamm) starts building a case for Jewell's guilt of the act of terrorism.   

When Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) gets a wind of this she ravenously sees huge headline potential, realizing that the pressure to arrest Jewell and charge him will sell papers.  Jewell finds some solace with his supportive mother (a superb Kathy Bates), and later decides to secure legal counsel in an old friend in Watson Bryant (the routinely reliable Sam Rockwell) to help him sift through the ensuing legal shit storm to come.  Disastrously, the FBI is unwavering in their drive to use every sneaky method at their disposal to get dirt on Jewell and arrest him, with Scrubs and other newspapers relishing in the coverage, which negatively starts to destroy the public's faith in Jewell's innocence.  Jewell himself, mostly inadvertently, doesn't help matters either, mostly because he perfectly fits the profile of a lone nut desperate for attention.  That, and his spotty employment career with multiple complaints from his ex-bosses combined with other damning - albeit circumstantial - details (like his gun obsession) starts to really hurt his legal chances. 

RICHARD JEWELL is a routinely strong drama because of the remarkable acting trifecta of Hauser, Bates, and Rockwell.  Bates is especially convincing and more than a bit heartbreaking as this elderly mother that has to deal with the mounting psychological grief of knowing that she has no power whatsoever to shield and protect her son from the outside forces that want to destroy him.  Rockwell is as commendably stalwart as ever as this pragmatic, but slightly in over his head attorney that sees multiple wrongs happening to his client.  RICHARD JEWELL is absolutely Hauser's film, though, and he gives such a phenomenally credible and lived-in performance as gentle spoken, well meaning and noble minded, but increasingly conflicted nobody that covets everything about law enforcement until he sees those very institutions begins to conspire against him.  What's perhaps so sad about Hauser's brilliant turn here is that he absolutely deserves Academy recognition with a nomination, but will likely lose out because of the other big name heavy industry players all vying for a trophy.  Between his work in RICHARD JEWELL, BLACKKKLANSMAN and I, TONYA Hauser is making a confident claim for being one of the finer new character actors working today.  There's simply not an inauthentic beat with any of his performances.   

Unfortunately, I have to address the large controversial elephant in the room here when it comes to the veracity of RICHARD JEWELL's recreation of the events in question.  Most specifically, the off-putting handling of the Scruggs character herself, which was the center of many pre-release articles (citing family members of Scruggs and her former colleagues) that deeply criticized the film's portraying of her as a journalist that would offer sex (among other things) to an FBI agent for a lead on the Jewell story.  The FBI agents in question are not presented in a favorable light either, with most of them being power hungry and manipulatively vile men that threw the legal rule book out the window in trying to convict Jewell.  Movies take dramatic license all the time with history (not defending that, but it happens), but what Eastwood, Ray, and Wilde do with Scruggs is demeaningly paradoxical to the film's themes.  Scruggs is shown as a venomous shark that seems to take great joy in trying to destroy Jewell (plus, the manner she prostitutes herself - which is apparently manufactured - doesn't speak highly to how Eastwood treats his female characters). 

Wilde's grotesquely over-the-top performance here does her and the part no favors whatsoever.  She's less a flesh and blood human being than she is a caricatured plot device that cartoonishly shows up to make Jewell's life miserable when the script requires it.  The manner that Scruggs has this moral and ethical epiphany late in the film about being wrong about Jewell is one of the most emotionally and dramatically false moments of any movie in many a moon.  It's never once credible.  Wilde has somewhat pathetically defended her performance on social media by saying that it was "out of her hands," not to mention that she lamented that it was sexist to lambaste Scruggs in the film for selling her body for news leaks when the male FBI agent did the same and faced zero criticism.  However, the main agent in the film is a composite of many people, whereas Scrubs was a real person that's no longer around to defend herself (she died in 2001).   The central irony of RICHARD JEWELL is that is tries to rightfully evoke the corruption of slandering one person...while engaging in character assassination of another person.  It all leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. 

That's too bad, because there's a truly great historical drama buried deep beneath this film's troublesome and hard to ignore creative choices.  I'm nevertheless giving RICHARD JEWELL a passing grade, mostly because Eastwood's direction is fine, unfussy, and no-nonsense in telling the man's Olympic ordeal (the bombing sequence in film is one of the more suspenseful moments of any recent film on his resume).  On top of that, the film should be commended for its richly textured and stirring performances that captures the emotional implosion of its characters most directly in the line of fire of being wrongly accused.  If only the film were more level headed and minded in terms of offering a holistic and fair approach about all other players involved in this historical narrative.  There's multiple lessons to be learned from RICHARD JEWELL about painting people with the wrong brushstrokes.   

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