At 89 years old, Clint Eastwood continues his string of competently-made biopics with Richard Jewell, an occasionally inspiring but largely listless docudrama about the vilification of an everyday hero.
Like his Tom Hanks-starring Sully from a few years back, Eastwood once again examines how the government and media conspired together to take a second look at a newly proclaimed national hero. Though it tackles the same themes, Jewell is over 30 minutes longer than Sully and doesn’t feature any scenes as harrowing as the famous landing on the Hudson. Most striking, though, is the relatively leisurely pace and overall lack of urgency that go into telling this story.
Our titular hero (Paul Walter Hauser) may be familiar to those who had their finger on the pulse in the mid-’90s. It was at the 1996 Summer Olympics that the Atlanta security guard stumbled upon a suspicious package, a bundle of pipe bombs that exploded only after Jewell and fellow officers cleared the area. His moment of glory in the national spotlight begins to darken when FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and rambunctious reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) craft a narrative implicating Jewell in the attack. With his bullish lawyer (Sam Rockwell) and caring mother (Kathy Bates), Richard fights back to prove his innocence in the mounting trial by the media.
Set at the intersection of cynicism and heroism, Richard Jewell seeks to investigate the impulse by the general public to quickly turn on innocent figures for instant gratification. Eastwood’s choice to depict a sea of concert-goers dancing mindlessly to the “Macarena” seems to reinforce the idea that the masses will go along with just about anything if the tune is catchy enough. The problem, then, is that we don’t get insight into how the “song” against Richard Jewell was created. I went into the film expecting to see how the initial hit piece by the Atlanta Journal Constitution was written or what kind of evidence the FBI had against Jewell but the movie is oddly devoid of much of this insight.
If the narrative isn’t as exciting as it should be, things are carried along nicely by the talented cast led by the exceptional Paul Walter Hauser, who gave memorable performances over the past couple years in BlacKkKlansman and I, Tonya. Here, he imbues our protagonist with the quiet dignity and underdog spirit to make it nearly impossible to root against him. He keeps most of his emotions under the surface but when bouts of anger do spike up, they’re more heartbreaking than alarming given everything the character is put through.
Elsewhere, Rockwell and Hamm turn in reliable work as aggressive men trying to get the job done while Wilde out-hams Hamm in a juicy role as a promiscuous reporter.
With its mistrust of government officials and depiction of “fake news” before that was even a term, the film unquestionably has a political subtext if one seeks it. Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to read the film without it and engage with the story no matter where you lean politically. Frankly, I would have been more than okay with Eastwood making things even more political if it had resulted in a more interesting movie as a whole.
Thanks to cinematographer Yves Bélanger, the film always looks great, a huge step-up from the shoddy camerawork in Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris from last year.
As is, Richard Jewell works best as a quiet character study and may disappoint those looking for the tightly-
edited thriller that the promotional material suggests.
Also coming to theaters this weekend
Jumanji: The Next Level, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black, brings the gang of video game avatars back for another adventure that will take them all across the digital landscape.
Black Christmas, starring Imogen Poots and Cary Elwes, is a remake of the 1970s slasher movie about a group of female college students who are being stalked during their Christmas break.
Waves, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown, tells the harrowing story of a suburban family as they recover together in the aftermath of an unspeakable loss.