Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 129 minutes
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
With RICHARD JEWELL, director Clint Eastwood has finally returned to form after two major critical missteps, THE 15:17 TO PARIS (an experimental film of sorts) and THE MULE (an incredibly bonkers one). The octogenarian filmmaker has found renewed vitality helming this intensely intimate portrait of a courageous security guard – a man who saved the lives of hundreds of people during the 1996 Olympics, but became a target of suspicion for the authorities, press and public. Based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, and adapted by Billy Ray, this biopic delivers heartrending resonance and modern relevance. Most importantly, it exonerates a hero.
Eastwood establishes Richard Jewell’s (Paul Walter Hauser) good heart and sweet disposition from moment one, spotlighting his early days as a mailroom and supply attendant who anticipates and observes the needs of the office’s busy workers. He has big dreams to work in law enforcement, but when he’s hired as a college campus security guard, his enthusiasm for the gig and overzealous nature gets him fired. Even though the college president’s dossier is packed with complaints and infractions, Jewell doesn’t let that deter him from his dreams. The glimmer of glory is dangled in front of his face once the Olympics descend upon Atlanta and the need for security guards skyrockets.
Not only is Jewell looking for something to springboard him to the next level in his career, so are a few other opposing forces about to converge on his life. Smarmy reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is frustrated with her job at The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is searching for the next big story on which to make her name. She frequently uses her seductive femininity to coax details out of one of her sources. That source is FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who’s been assigned to patrol Centennial Olympic Park during the games. He’s hoping to keep his well-established reputation in the bureau sparkling clean.
While on duty on the second night of Olympic festivities, Jewell discovers a pipe bomb and evacuates the area, keeping the devastation to a controlled minimum. The news media hails him as a hero, which earns him the respect of his colleagues. However, the tides turn once Shaw starts digging deeper into Jewell’s past and Scruggs breaks a national, front page scoop that he’s the prime suspect in the government’s investigation. Jewell’s only way out of this unfathomable nightmare is through lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a pal from his old office days. Bryant’s a bit rusty in his ways, but – much like this film’s director – rediscovers his vigor once called into action.
Eastwood utilizes lively artistic panache in an appealing, electrifying manner. He and cinematographer Yves Bélanger capture the tension-filled build to the explosion and the terrifying chaos after the blast, steeping that atmosphere in smoke, blood, confusion and death. Later, when Bryant and assistant Nadya (Nina Arianda) retrace the timeline, Eastwood and editor Joel Cox cleverly draw a parallel through cross-cutting between an Olympian’s win and Jewell’s defense team’s sure-fire win. It doesn’t always work, as Jewell’s panicked fever-dream – where he imagines he’d be better off if he had thrown himself on the bomb – comes across as a wee bit wonky tonally. It’s obtuse in an otherwise thoughtful drama that speaks in soft, nuanced profundity.
That said, there are a few flaws that keep the film from perfection. The way the filmmakers position Scruggs, a real-life (now deceased) female journalist, as Jewell’s antagonist and representation of Big Bad Media is pretty problematic, falling into trope-riddled stereotypes. She’s portrayed as a sexpot career opportunist looking to exploit her subjects. Worse, she disregards journalistic ethics, hiding in Bryant’s car and having sex with source Shaw (because that’s what female reporters in movies do). And when she experiences her inevitable pivot back to humanity, it’s hard to buy a hardened career gal crying during a press conference.
Ray’s script repeats a few of the beats on a few occasions, but he broadens those repetitive moments, taking us deeper into the character-based actions. Scenes that establish and re-establish Jewell as a Good Guy (like when he gives a water bottle to a pregnant woman, or the Snickers bars to Bryant) run a bit longer each time to show he’s fallible in other judgements (mishandling a concertgoer with a backpack full of beer cans). Perhaps what works best is how Ray infuses levity into the situations without it tipping the scales. That’s also courtesy of the cast’s capabilities.
Hauser’s pitch-perfect performance grabs our hearts, graciously gifting Jewell necessary depth and dimension – two facets never totally captured in the news reports at the time. He makes us feel the weight of every breath Jewell takes, each frustration-stirring micro-aggression callously lobbed at him, and every added component of stress that further weakens his character’s big heart. Rockwell’s work is equally as tremendous. He gives the picture a sassy kick, illuminating vibrancy and pliable humor, augmenting the emotional pull of the pair’s camaraderie without sappy sentimentality.
Metaphorical poignancy is found in the shot where Jewell’s mom Bobi (Kathy Bates) fishes her Tupperware out of a box of confiscated items, slowly trying to wipe away the evidence number written in permanent ink. This is a stain that will never go away, much like the undeserved smear on Jewell. Though the third act rushes to wrap things up in a tidy bow, when in real life the consequences of this debacle reverberated in Jewell’s life for years, RICHARD JEWELL successfully restores the shine to the reputations of both its titular hero and the filmmaker behind it.
RICHARD JEWELL played AFI Fest on November 20. It opens on December 13.