Richard Jewell Is Bare Bones Reporting (Movie Review)

Clint Eastwood’s latest film to tackle a hero who was unfairly scrutinized in the public eye is, for better or worse, exactly what you think it is. The story of a would-be lawman whose instincts to be overly cautious led to the discovery of a bomb that could have killed hundreds at a music fest during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta is told plainly, almost to a fault. There are many sides to this story, but Eastwood only lets his audience sympathize with one of them. If we lived in a vacuum, this would be fine, but in 2019 we most certainly do not. Strong performances and a steady hand by the 89-year-old filmmaker ensures this flick will be enjoyable to many over the holiday break. Still, a bolder film would have at least attempted to illuminate different POVs. As a result, Richard Jewell is more Sully than Million Dollar Baby.

After years of failing to join Atlanta PD, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) ends up working security detail for AT&T during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He got to work the concert events, which means his momma (Kathy Bates) could sing along with Kenny Rogers and do the Macarena on the same night. But on the next day, while confronting a bunch of jerk kids for drinking, Jewell spots a lone backpack. He quickly informs the authorities and lo and behold the bag actually contained explosives. After doing his best to move the crowd from the bag, an explosion rocked the field, spraying nails that injured many concertgoers and, sadly, killed two. At first, Jewell is seen as a hero, but soon the FBI and the Atlanta Journal consider that he might have been the guy who planted the bomb, only to “save the day” and become a hero. As a white, male loner who lives with his mom, collects firearms, and had been known in the past to take his job too seriously, Jewell becomes an easy target.

Also too easy is the script by Billy Ray (recently of Gemini Man, and of better films in the past), which barely considers how dangerous Jewell would be if he had indeed been the bomber. Jon Hamm plays lead FBI investigator Tom Shaw. Hamm is deadly serious in the role, and his natural charisma makes the character click. Ditto, Olivia Wilde who plays the reporter who broke the story, Kathy Scruggs.

Scruggs is a hot mess with Wilde amping up that kind of energy to 11. Like Hamm, Wilde’s a good performer, so the part is never dull. However, both roles are woefully underwritten. As opposed to painting both the FBI and the Atlanta Journal as smart, possibly overworked professionals like in Zero Dark Thirty or Spotlight, Eastwoods keeps us at arm’s length with each team. Hamm and Wilde are engaging to be sure, but they’re mostly the Goliaths to Jewell’s David. The number of times the word “media” is used pejoratively could be a drinking game.

Controversy has arisen over the portrayal of Scruggs, who’s seen as willing to do anything to get the story, even sleep with a G man. I have no idea if this did or didn’t happen in real life. I tend to take “based on a true story” with a grain of salt. The issue is more that it’s a tired trope and not a very progressive way to portray a woman concerning her career and private life. And strangely, the way the key scene plays out is not really necessary to the plot.

On the plus side, those we root for, namely Jewell and his momma, are terrific. Once again, I’m not quite sure Hauser, Bates, or even Sam Rockwell, who plays Jewell’s hotheaded lawyer, are layered characters, but the trio delivers. We genuinely feel for Jewell as a man who stands for lawmen, even as he’s seen as a joke to them. Hauser uses his physicality at every turn, his sulk, and his awkward way of injecting himself into the conversation. He’s part trainwreck, part sad puppy, but it works.

Despite these fine performances and a great leading turn from “destined-to-remain-a-character-actor” Hauser, Richard Jewell is still stuck in one mode that’s only so interesting, as far as this story goes. Director Clint Eastwood made an emotionally engaging flick. I just wish he or the script dug a little deeper.

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