In this day and age, the truth is much more complicated than it should be…
With Richard Jewell director Clint Eastwood returns with what just might be his most well rounded film in recent years, even though that’s still not saying all that much, given the problematic depiction of some of its characters, thankfully it has an excellent leading man performance that elevates this film out of a very pointed mire of politics.
The world is first introduced to Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) as the security guard who reports finding the device at the 1996 Atlanta bombing; his report making him a hero whose swift actions save countless lives. But within days, the law enforcement wannabe becomes the FBI’s number one suspect, vilified by press and public alike, his life ripped apart. Reaching out to independent, anti-establishment attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), Jewell staunchly professes his innocence. But Bryant finds he is out of his depth as he fights the combined powers of the FBI, GBI and APD to clear his client’s name, while keeping Richard from trusting the very people trying to destroy him.
Clint Eastwood has been churning out features at a pretty solid clip these past few years with some solid (American Sniper, Sully) results and some not so much (Jersey Boys, 15:17 To Paris), thankfully Richard Jewell falls in the category of the former, all be it barely thanks to a genuine star making performance from Paul Walter Hauser in the title role.
There’s no doubting Eastwood’s obvious skill as a storyteller working in small intimate confines’ of very personal stories or inside large landscapes of war and with his usual team behind him he makes a film that weaves fairly seamlessly in and out of the archival footage from the events that he interweaves into the narrative. It all has a genuine flow, looks solid and never gets overly bogged down on any singular story points…meaning we’re never really bored throughout.
That being said, the screenplay from Billy Ray working from the original article by journalist Marie Brenner feels very underdeveloped outside of Hauser as Jewell and Sam Rockwell has his embattled lawyer Watson Bryant. The supporting players are very one dimensional and more than a little insulting leaving everything that surrounds Jewell as bordering on silly and a little over the top.
Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw comes off like he’s supposed to be a villain in a Mr. Peabody & Sherman cartoon with a drinking problem while Olivia Wilde as overly ambitious journalist Kathy Scruggs who can only get a scoop by sleeping with her sources is not only factually questionable but she was basically instructed to play it as borderline unhinged until she comes to the revelation that she was wrong. It all ends as hammy while Kathy Bates as Bobi Jewell has never been more one dimensional.
While it’s obvious that Ray and Eastwood are using this story as a platform to attack not only the media but law enforcement as well (and while we can’t deny that’s it’s not at least partially warranted in so many different stories playing out even today) this all came off clumsy and lacking any genuine nuance that both Eastwood and Ray have proven they are very capable of.
Where this movie genuinely succeeds is with the dynamic between Hauser and Rockwell as the two men in the eye of a very unfortunate storm.
A career character actor, Paul Walter Hauser delivers a career making performance here as Richard Jewell. Not with any kind of big dramatic flourish but in a calm and simple matter crafting someone who is very obviously a little off centre and weird because who of us really isn’t? That’s really the point of the movie as we see this man with a very simple moral code that often gets him into more trouble than he ever expected. Hauser gives us a quiet soul pushed to his absolute brink and wears it in his performance as both Jewell and Wilde’s Scruggs both died only a handful of years after these events not being able to handle the strain that these events put on their lives.
Sam Rockwell is an obvious breath of fresh air as his lawyer Watson Bryant bringing his natural sardonic humour and passion to the role as a great counterbalance to Hauser’s Jewell.
Ultimately, Richard Jewell is one of those kinds of movies that’s about the performance rather than the narrative as a whole. If you want to see a really great performance in cinema this year, then Richard Jewell is the one for you as it will make you excited for anything that Paul Walter Hauser does next, just go in knowing you’ll have to sit through a little bit of nonsense to truly appreciate his performance.