Clint Eastwood’s profiles of Twenty-First Century Heroism continue with the true story of Richard Jewell. The film dramatizes the story in which the security guard, played by Paul Walter Hauser, saved thousands of lives from an explosion during the 1996 Olympic Games. Jewell isn’t what one would consider a conventional hero at first glance. He doesn’t have the all-American look of Chris Kyle or the miraculousness of Captain Sullenberger. His profession doesn’t inspire confidence or earn respect. But his story is worth knowing.
Eastwood’s film looks at what happens after Jewell reports a suspicious backpack that turned out to be a bomb. Said bomb detonated soon after, but the film sees Jewell save many lives. He becomes a hero. An underdog by all accounts, Jewell becomes a media darling and enjoys the perks of pseudo-celebrity. His mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), can even watch Tom Brokaw talk about him on television.
But the initial infatuation that makes Jewell a media darling comes with the greater scrutiny that’s associated with fame. Richard’s previous job performance and his reputation as a wannabe cop make him a suspect. Once FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) is learns from one of Jewell’s previous employers that the hero had been fired for impersonating a police officer and for muscling students off-campus as a college guard, the story changes. Reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), eager to get a front-page story in any way possible, sleeps her way to the top of the investigation (a narrative choice that is hotly contested by sources close to the late journalist, and fairly so). She breaks the news that Jewell was viewed as a person of interest by the FBI. After the Atlanta Constitution Journal prints the story, Richard goes straight from hero to pariah. And thanks to Scruggs, Richard is now accused of planting the Centennial Park bomb.
When Jewell presents his case to G. Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), it couldn’t be more difficult. His client and friend, Richard has already been tried by the media and been falsely declared a terrorist. To make matters worse, Richard, despite Bryant’s pleas to not cooperate with law enforcement, gladly helps the FBI in its own investigation.
Out of some perverse concept of brotherhood, Jewell repeatedly testifies without a lawyer present and agrees to searches without warrants. In an egregious example of Jewell’s affability, a very angry Bobi picks up after the FBI’s search through her home, and wonders aloud why the FBI would need to take her Tupperware. Her son “helpfully” explains that it could be used for storing nails in a pipebomb. The gobsmacked look on Bobi and Bryant’s faces would suggest to Jewell that he should shut up. However, he continues elaborating the many ways that Bobi’s household items could be used for weapons.
Rockwell makes an impression early by using Bryant’s prickly exterior to stick up for his client. Jewell seemingly refuses to stick up for himself, which becomes a running theme of the film. Richard Jewell is another example of Rockwell’s ability to steal a film from his entire cast. Rockwell’s bold, brash performance is a highlight of the film.
One wishes the same could be said for Hamm and Wilde. Richard Jewell‘s defining flaw is the choice by Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) to position their characters as sole representatives of law enforcement and the media, respectively. Jewell’s story doesn’t have an obvious antagonist – just the potential dangers of overreach by media and the FBI – so Ray’s script manufactures some villains to make the story black and white. By doing so, he robs the film of any potential nuance. The film goes to lengths to paint Shaw (a fictional amalgamation of several FBI agents) and Scruggs as bad people and two talented actors are forced to play caricatures.
At a pre-Olympic show, Shaw and Scruggs sneer at the crowd dancing the Macarena. They mock the crowd for being rubes and hicks. If that bit of mustache-twirling is unbearable, try the following scene on for size: after the bomb explodes, Scruggs immediately runs to a colleague to pray that her paper finds the culprit first. “Please, whoever he is, let him be interesting,” is the best she can do.
Meanwhile, Shaw takes part in a pissing contest that features local police, state police, ATF and the FBI each arguing over the chain of command in the middle of a tragedy. Hamm has the benefit of playing a fictional character, but Wilde is maligning a flesh and blood reporter who passed away in 2001. The film suggests that Scruggs slept her way to a source and scurrilously built narratives out of false information, despite the former editor of the paper suggesting that nothing of the kind happened. This isn’t the first time that an Eastwood film has taken liberties with a true story, as evidenced by Sully‘s portrayal of the National Transportation Safety Board’s routine investigation into the cause of the accident. The script needed tension, so making antagonists out of the NTSB was a surefire way to do that. The problem is that the agency’s report supported Sullenberger’s account and acknowledged his heroism. Tom Hanks’ impassioned speech confronting the board was cinematic, but, like the actions of Wilde’s character, it also didn’t happen.
Similarly, there’s little effort to tell the truth of Jewell’s situation. Eastwood is just as guilty of cherry-picking as the irresponsible journalist and FBI agent he depicts are. It’s odd that in light of the salacious fabrications that Richard Jewell sells that Eastwood didn’t try to sanitize the man at the center of the story. Blemishes and all, Hauser plays Jewell as a human figure, rather than a quote-unquote hero that films “based on a true story” conveniently depict.
Two things can prove true. Richard Jewell was an off-putting figure, but he was also innocent of the Olympic bombing. Hauser adds pathos to a character that would’ve resembled a cartoon in lesser hands. Jonah Hill was originally slated to play Jewell, but Hauser’s anonymity allows him to disappear into the character. A recognizable star would’ve felt too fake. And considering how many fabrications Richard Jewell weaves already, that’s saying a lot.
Richard Jewell opens in theatres December 13.