Cast: Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell), Sam Rockwell (Watson Bryant), Kathy Bates (Bobi Jewell), Jon Hamm (Tom Shaw), Olivia Wilde (Kathy Scruggs), Nina Arianda (Nadya)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer Billy Ray
Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger
Editor: Joel Cox
Composer: Arturo Sandoval
Rating: R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images.
Run Time: 129 minutes
Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell is about the security guard who became the FBI’s primary suspect after he found a bomb in Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) has a deep reverence for law enforcement and considers himself as such even though he was let go from working at a sheriff’s office. This, coupled with the fact that Jewell lives with his mother and is a white man, makes him fit the profile of the “lone bomber,” which journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) describes as “a frustrated white man who is a police wannabe who seeks to become a hero.” Jewell thinks of himself as someone just doing their job, but his discovery of the bomb brings down the scrutiny of the FBI and the media because, as FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) says, “You always look at the person who found the bomb the same way you look at the person who found the body.”
The film makes Scruggs the catalyst for the media firestorm that falls on Jewell and his mother. Scruggs coaxes the information that Jewell is the FBI’s number one suspect in the bombing out of Shaw by offering him sexual favors in exchange. The front page story she pens about the FBI investigation into Jewell is factual, but Scruggs’ motivations are selfish. Eastwood and Wilde portray Scruggs as so fast, loose, and ambitious that her character seems underwritten and cartoonish. Scruggs will do anything for a good story that could move her up the professional ladder. She tells her colleague at the scene of the bombing, “please let the man who did this be interesting,” and when she gets the tip about Jewell out of Shaw, she blurts out: “That fat fuck lives with his mother, of course.” Many will see Scruggs’ character as libelous, a sexist trope, the mark of poor screenwriting, or all three.
Shaw is not given much more characterization than Scruggs. The film implies Shaw is driven to convict Jewell because he feels guilty the bombing happened under his watch. At the same time, Shaw uses all sorts of deception to prove his case. He exploits Jewell’s passivity and respect for authority to push Jewell to sign real legal documents under the guise of filming a training video or to record him saying, “There is a bomb in Centennial Park, you have 30 minutes.” It calls into question the genuineness of Shaw’s character — is he a man whose judgement is compromised by his remorse or is he a ruthless G-man seeking to redeem himself by feeding the media an arrest? Even when Shaw delivers news to Jewell that his name is cleared, Shaw affirms, “I still think you’re guilty as hell.” Shaw comes across like a heel, the villain written to receive our hate. By the end, viewers may start to feel as emotionally manipulated as the man of the film’s title.
The film’s standout performances are from Hauser as Jewell, Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant, and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s Mother, Bobi. There are a handful of poignant scenes between Jewell and Watson that sell the strong friendship beneath their attorney-client privilege. There are also a few humorous scenes that hinge on the clash between Watson’s rebellious, battle-ready spirit and Jewell’s tendency to be a doormat to the men and women in uniform he admires so much. However, Bates arguably steals the film in a scene towards the end that drives home the toll her son’s ordeal takes on her.
The performances in Richard Jewell are aided by Eastwood’s confidence behind the camera. Scenes are tightly shot and laced together with consistently even pacing. The musical score is used sparingly, heightening the pay-off of the film’s most emotionally compelling scenes. Eastwood’s films have developed a unique look that plays with high-contrast and slight desaturation. Here, this aesthetic is especially striking in scenes where characters’ faces are partially or fully obscured by shadows, lending them a chiaroscuro effect like a Renaissance painting.
With most films about real-life events, I am less interested in how faithful the film is to the facts than I am in what the film’s representation of the facts suggests about its worldview. In Richard Jewell, a man does the right thing and it backfires. He is accused of a crime he did not commit and suffers for it. There is an anxiousness in the film about overly driven women, about being tried in the court of public opinion, about lonely white men who fit the profile of domestic terrorists, about the trustworthiness of men in power. There is even a strain of homophobia — Jewell excuses the FBI’s invasion of his life for the most part, but the one thing he pushes back against is the FBI’s suspicion that he had a male accomplice and that the two were lovers.
The anxieties simmering beneath the plot of Richard Jewell make the creative liberties it takes feel contrived. Eastwood’s version of the story of a man wrongfully accused of perpetrating a bombing in 1996 feels like a vessel for channeling fears about the shifting sociopolitical landscape in 2019. That Eastwood is an icon for a dated form of white masculinity only further suggests his film is entrenched in a reactionary political stance. The film toys with the facts of the event it’s based on to trick its audience into rooting for its hero to prevail against its villains. The irony is that we would root for Richard Jewell regardless.