Lately, I have been watching a lot of movies that share something in common – they are narratives that make me stare in disbelief at figure heads of authority and many a time I would hurl expletives at the scenes of gross miscarriage of justice and the failure of the legal system. Most recently it was Netflix’s When They See Us and prior before that it was the Sheep Without a Shepherd, a Chinese remake of Drishyam (2013), but what started it all was Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. This is a David versus Goliath tragedy – a man was celebrated as a hero and a few days later he was vilified by the press and the FBI as a terrorist.
It was a sensational story in 1996: Richard Jewell, a security guard at the Olympic Games in Atlanta finds a bomb and saves hundreds of lives due to his quick thinking (and probably his set ways). A few days later, he turns from hero to villain being accused of masterminding the bombing. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.
I like how Eastwood paints Jewell – he is no paragon. He may worship the men in blue and sees himself as a police officer, but he oversteps his boundary in barging in on college kids “Mickey Mousing” around or even stopping cars on the roads for breaking traffic laws. He is a social misfit, a square peg to a round hole, always saying more than what is required especially if it is to people in the law enforcement. Jewell sees the world in black and white, following rules to a T as long as they have been written in the book. Owning a whole cache of legally purchased weapons doesn’t help his cause too.
Paul Walter Hauser plays Richard Jewell and it’s a performance that feels genuinely lived-in. He is so good that I thought they actually cast a daft beatnik of an oddball in the role. Later, I would IMDb him and realised I have seen him most recently in I, Tonya and Blackkklansman. This is a role that finally puts him in the spotlight and the empathy emanating from his performance will leave an indelible mark on the most jaded movie-goer. In my humble opinion, he should have been rewarded with a nomination for Best Actor.
Hauser is supported by an able cast that includes Kathy Bates who plays Jewell’s loving mother and Sam Rockwell who plays his attorney, Watson Bryant. It’s the latter relationship that is engagingly portrayed. In fact, the movie begins with Jewell and Bryant in an office years before the heinous events. Bryant nicknamed Jewell “Radar” who was then an office guy, but he will become a steadfast believer of Jewell’s innocence. Rockwell can play these irascible but redeeming roles in his sleep. He is the voice of reason and the true north of the moral compass as Jewell becomes victimised and character-assassinated.
The twin Goliaths here are represented by Jon Hamm’s FBI agent and Olivia Wilde’s journalist Kathy Scruggs. Theirs is a blow by blow method on how to “kill” someone in the public eye. Unscrupulous and despicable, till the point I felt like stepping inside the screen to punch them. That usually means the storyteller got the mechanics right. Of the two, Wilde definitely drew the shorter stick with a thankless role, but kudos to her for a good performance that hit a nerve in the last act. While reading up on her character, I found out that both Jewell and Scruggs died very young. Till the last months of her life, the events that happened and her part in them still plagued her. The modern society can be very unforgiving and it is the same in any city.
Eastwood’s direction is not showy, editing feels invisible and nothing will take you away from the main story. He allows the scenes to breathe and none overstays their welcome. I hardly felt two hours pass and long after that the characters continue to stay in my mind.
The later part of Eastwood’s career sees him train his erudite eye on lone heroes, deconstructing the idea of heroism and what it entails. Richard Jewell definitely fits like a glove into his oeuvre and it is as relevant today as it was in 1996.
Rating: 4 of 5
Written by Daniel Chiam