While to some the notion of being important, doing something great and being someone of note is something to cling to as a form of life goal. Sure it isn’t the most important part of life but this obsession with being noticed is one that is completely normal. It is the people that aim lower and just want to be part of the group, the unsung sheepish among us that rarely get discussed, not only in films but in general. Director Clint Eastwood has crafted a film around one such individual and while chronicling his rise and fall makes for some entertaining moments of witty dialogue or uncomfortable physical comedy, it doesn’t feel like the crucial piece of cinema this true story should be.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a security guard with dreams of being an official police officer, a protector of people, not just a caretaker. When he finds a suspicious package while working as added security at the Atlanta Olympic games in 1996 he saves hundreds of lives from a deadly explosion. Days later he is targetted by the FBI as the lead suspect in their investigation and thanks to a targetted media campaign is vilified. While the man has nothing but respect for law enforcement, he has to learn to fight back against the slander he faces for his moment of heroism.
Much like Eastwood’s previous film, the entertaining but banal drug caper The Mule, Richard Jewell is too linear and narrow-focused to really delve into the complexities of a story that seems outlandish. More interested in depicting a man re-evaluating an entire belief system than facing the inherent narrow-minded viewpoint of people supposedly tasked with exploring all the angles, most of the drama here comes from Hauser’s minimal but comic interpretation of Jewell. Bringing up the dramatic slack is Kathy Bates, a dark horse Oscar nominee for good reason, as Jewell’s mother Bobi, who is strong and shy, oftentimes in the same frame. The two seem like an incongruous pair but as the film goes on, Eastwood binds them through morality but most importantly, shared trauma.
Almost presented as a play of sorts, Richard Jewell is interested in being accurate, but insultingly so. Artistic license seems oddly unimportant as dry factoids about profiling and journalistic integrity are spouted by characters whose animated natures are designed to make placid moments of drama seem more lively. Olivia Wilde’s flirty journalist, Kathy Scruggs, the woman to break the ‘Jewell story’ as everyone proceeds to call it, depersonifying a story severely lacking in personality in the first place, is vampiric in how she approaches her job, almost making the character seem sociopathic until a mid-film twist demands she act more human. Jon Hamm’s tunnel vision affected FBI agent is equally stereotypical, taking the place of an entire organisation.
There is nothing wrong with trying to praise a person, a heroic deed but the script, written by Billy Ray, does so at the expense of real people and events. The FBI play the role of playground bully instead of the unfortunately mismanaged and incorrect role it should have. Scruggs is a career-obsessed ‘she-bitch’ instead of a real human being. In fact, even Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) is painted through rose-tinted glasses, despite Eastwood alluding to a bigger, more complicated backstory he doesn’t give time to explain. Outside of Richard’s immediate orbit, the film squanders it’s potential telling a black and white story.
To clarify, Richard Jewell is a man who was tragically abused by a system he adored. Hauser does the man justice, never playing him as a saint, but thanks to a closed off script, a bevvy of poorly written characters and a dry loveless tone, his story is one of farce instead of fact and that just feels like an insult.