Richard Jewell (R)
07/01/20 21:11 Filed in: 2019
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
Based on the horrific events that transpired at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, GA during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Richard Jewell tells the true account of how the right security guard at the right time saved countless lives, but then went from hero to prime suspect in a matter of days. The movie is based on the book The Suspect by Kent Alexander & Kevin Salwen and the Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner.
The movie begins with Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) delivering mail (and Snickers bars) to his new boss, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Jewell soon leaves that job to pursue a career in law enforcement. Years later, after being fired from his security position at Piedmont College, one of Jewell’s friends recommends that he try getting on one of the security crews at the Olympic Games.
We jump forward to when Jewell is working security for AT&T during the Olympics’ nightly concert series. One night, Jewell sneaks up behind his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), and joins her in singing the chorus to “The Gambler” as Kenny Rogers performs it live on stage. The following night isn’t as festive. Backpack. Explosion. And the rest is history.
Whereas the film’s central event is explosive, the story isn’t. Billy Ray’s (Captain Phillips) screenplay is extremely slow out of the starting gate. We follow Jewell as he bounces from job to job before finally getting hired on at the Olympics. Though we learn a good deal about Jewell’s personality and eccentricities during these preliminary scenes, it would’ve been nice if the early stages of the movie had been more intentional.
Much of the movie’s geriatric pacing can be attributed to the octogenarian director’s filming style. With a few exceptions, the majority of Clint Eastwood’s recent films have lacked urgency. He tends to capture the reality of a story in a very deliberate manner. Here, that purposefulness almost works in his favor, since the film is set in the Deep South, a region known for its slower pace. Negative critiques aside, after a series of average (The Mule) to awful (The 15:17 to Paris) films, this is Eastwood’s best effort in years.
Eastwood has tapped some fine talent for his biopic. Simply put, Hauser (I, Tonya) makes this movie work. You can’t help but feel pity for the quirky, vigilant and by the book security guard.
There’s a great scene where Bryant accuses Jewell of not being mad enough about what’s happening to him. The remark succeeds in triggering Jewell’s indignation. Jewell tells Bryant he can’t react the way the lawyer would and that he has to be true to himself. Even when provoked to anger, Jewell still had integrity.
Rockwell is flawless as Jewell’s “loud lawyer.” Bryant repays Jewell’s loyalty by sticking with him through the media circus that ensues after Jewell becomes the assumed perpetrator of the bombing. Bryant’s hard-nosed approach is a huge asset in preventing the FBI agents from intimidating Jewell and coercing him into surrendering his rites.
Though she only has a handful of scenes, Bates is exceptional as Jewell’s mother. Her impassioned speech at the end of the film is deeply moving and shows her range as an actor. Jon Hamm perfectly plays Tom Shaw, the FBI agent who continues building his case against Jewell even after it becomes obvious the security guard is innocent. Rounding out the cast is Olivia Wilde, who plays Kathy Scruggs, an unscrupulous journalist more interested in grabbing a headline (and Shaw’s crotch) than telling the truth, regardless of how such falsehoods might destroy the reputation of an innocent person.
And therein lies the crux of the story. Jewell was falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Though the judicial bedrock of our nation has been eroding for decades now, it’s clear that the time-honored standard “innocent until proven guilty” was tenuous even at this point in our history.
Indeed, more than ever, people are rushing to judgment and vilifying perceived offenders before they’ve been sentenced, tried or convicted. This type of trial by media is incredibly dangerous to individual rights. Though the media scrutiny was unbearable in 1996, can you image the living hell Jewell would’ve endured if the bombing had occurred during the age of social media?
Despite the fact that his reputation was besmirched by an overeager reporter and an overzealous federal agent, Jewell is one of history’s greatest unsung heroes since the bombing would’ve claimed many more lives were it not for his training, awareness and aggressive evacuation of the concert venue. Even though Jewell fits a certain profile (gun owner, lives with his mother, knows how to make a pipe bomb, wants to be seen as a hero, etc.), estimations of his character, by various news outlets and key law enforcement officials, couldn’t have been further off base. Using Jewell as a case study, one wonders how many others in our society are just like him…misunderstood heroes in the making?
Ironically, the real Olympic bomber, Eric Rudolph, confessed to the crime in 2005. Two years later, Jewell died of heart failure at age 44.
In the end, Jewell is a bittersweet tale that illustrates just how quickly someone can go from being lionized to villainized. The movie is a sobering reminder of the media’s prevalence and the government’s ostensible omnipotence.
Jewell is a cautionary tale of how easily lives can be destroyed when powerful institutions succumb to knee-jerk reactions and turn public opinion against innocent citizens. It’s a lesson that’s just as salient today as it was in 1996.
Rating: 3 out of 4