In the absence of trips to the movie theater this summer, I’ve been slowly getting around to watching older movies that have been on my list for a while (see my review of A Face in the Crowd) and more recent releases that I didn’t get around to seeing during their theatrical run. Richard Jewell falls into an offshoot of the latter. It’s a movie I didn’t see during it’s theatrical run, because due to a controversy, I decided it wasn’t super important to work into my busy holiday season movie-going schedule. It was tossed aside in favor of better received films like Little Women and Uncut Gems. If you don’t know about the aforementioned controversy, you can read about it here.
The film is a biographical drama about security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), whose actions saved many lives during the Centennial Park Bombing at the 1996 Olympics, but his newfound hero status was short lived when news broke that the FBI considered him the main suspect in the terrorist attack. Jewell and his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) enlist legal counsel from Attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) as the FBI, led by Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamn), intensifies their search for evidence. Bryant’s job is made even more difficult due to Jewell’s trust and good will towards law enforcement.
Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray have a compelling story to tell when it focuses the FBI’s mishandling of this case. As Richard Jewell argues in a key scene, the time the agency has spent on pursuing him as a suspect, without any credible evidence, has given the actual bomber time to strike again. It’s unfortunate though that Ray’s script doesn’t allow the film to show (or even mention before the credits) that the bomber struck several more times before he was caught. In fact, other than a brief scene where Bryant tells Jewell that the real bomber has been apprehended, the film doesn’t mention Eric Rudolph. If it had, Eastwood may have had to acknowledge that the motive for Rudolph’s bombings was homophobia and anti-abortion politics. That would be a mighty uncomfortable position for Eastwood given his history of speaking to chairs at conservative functions.
Despite the film’s shortcomings in depicting the investigation that followed the bombing, it’s hard to argue with the central premise that the FBI smeared the reputation of a decent, if quirky, everyday hero. For his part, Hauser gives an amazing performance, as does Rockwell. Their scenes together are the core of the film, and I liked how Ray brings us into their relationship well before the events in Centennial Park. Ray has an affinity for writing about ordinary heroes, and he crafts a scene in a restaurant near the end that reminded me of Tom Hanks’ PTSD moment in Captain Phillips. Hauser is capable of acting on that level and making it look easy. It’s an impressive performance, and I hope that the film’s underwhelming box office results do not get in the way of catapulting Hauser out of the comic relief roles he as often (and memorably) inhabited in films like I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman.
Kathy Bates delivers solid work too, though in comparison to many other performances from 2019, I’m not convinced it was more deserving of an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress. Bates is amazing here, but then she always is. This is an actress talented enough to bring watchable, dare I say re-watchable, moments to turds like The Waterboy. Any highlight reel of Bates’ career from now on will rightfully include a clip of Bobi Jewell’s press conference, but I still think Zhao Shuzhen was robbed.
Where Richard Jewell goes catastrophically wrong is in the depiction of journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). I’m not that inclined to get defensive about Eastwood and Ray’s anger towards the Atlanta-Journal Constitution itself. Whether or not the paper rushed to publish the story, it’s just a fact that reporting the news, even if it is accurate, is sometimes going to hurt those reported on. The AJC’s reporting did play a role in the media frenzy that coincided with the FBI’s investigation, and for a time it did harm Jewell’s reputation. It’s fair to raise concerns about that. However, Ray and Eastwood take their anger too far by dragging Scruggs’ through the mud. Even setting aside the script’s baseless assertion that Scruggs traded sex for information from an FBI agent, the way she is written is laughably over the top, offensively mired in cliché and sexism and completely out of place in the overall grounded tone of the film. Scruggs should have been a compelling and complex character, but as written is just a tired stereotype. A lot of anger was directed at Olivia Wilde for accepting this role. That anger was largely misdirected. The blame for this thin and offensive depiction lies mostly with Billy Ray and Clint Eastwood. Ray got lazy with his writing, and Eastwood should have immediately demanded a rewrite.