The real story of Richard Jewell is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Jewell was a security guard during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. While working an evening of concerts at Centennial Olympic Park he discovered a suspicious backpack containing a bomb. He was instrumental in moving people out of the area just before the bomb detonated.
Many lives were saved and Jewell was instantly heralded as a hero. But it all changed when the FBI suddenly made him their prime suspect despite having no evidence to charge him. Information was leaked to the media who unfairly presumed his guilt and spent weeks demonizing him in print and on television. Jewell was eventually exonerated but not before it all had taken a terrible toll.
Clint Eastwood directs the simple-titled “Richard Jewell” which follows this aspiring ‘law enforcement officer’ through the events that would alter his life forever. The film stars Paul Walter Hauser as the title character, a Michigan native who sports a pretty impressive Deep South accent. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray dig a little into Richard’s past but mainly focus on Olympic Park bombing, the FBI’s shady work to pin it on Richard, and the media’s aggressive rush to convict him through their reporting.
The film portrays Richard as a gentle and well-meaning guy. He’s shown to be naive and unassuming to a fault which FBI agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm) will later exploit regardless of the legality. We also see that Richard sometimes takes things too seriously (which costs him his job as a college campus cop). Hauser’s spot-on performance captures all of Jewell’s kindness but also his eccentricities which leads to him being perceived as sympathetic and at times pitiful.
Hamm’s Agent Shaw was on duty at Centennial Olympic Park when the bomb went off. Bitter that it happened on his watch, Shaw is selfishly motivated to pin it on the man being called a hero. He has a ‘mutually beneficial’ relationship with Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a cutthroat journalist with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution who is more interested in getting the scoop first than testing the truthfulness of it.
You kinda expect Hamm to be good considering he has done variations of this role several times before. But Wilde stands out the most, vividly portraying a character who is brash, tenacious and boiling over with confidence. She’s unspeakably devious but just as intelligent. Both of their characters are implicit in hounding Richard and starting the firestorm of negative and in some cases abusive reporting (one paper gives him the title “Bubba Bomber”).
This opens the narrative door for two other great supporting performances. Sam Rockwell is fantastic playing Richard’s attorney Watson Bryant. The two men first cross paths early in the movie and then reconnect after Watson agrees to defend Richard against the unfounded allegations. And Kathy Bates is a real scene-stealer playing Richard’s mother Bobi. It’s an earnest, grounded performance and it’s easy believing in her as a caring and supportive mom.
“Richard Jewell” moves at a surprisingly snappy pace despite taking a while to show any real emotional conviction. It does a good job establishing its characters, but much like the movie’s namesake, it’s easygoing when it comes to emotions and a little too absorbed in the details. But Eastwood finally gives us a much earned payoff in a strong final act where Hauser, Bates, and Rockwell really humanize the story. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long get there.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS