Since American Sniper, Clint Eastwood has as a director turned out a series of ‘nine day wonder’ movies based on news items – all concentrating on ordinary folk who are pulled out of their normal workaday grind and mixed up in hot-button issue ongoing news stories with criminal cases attached … Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, The Mule and now Richard Jewell. Like Sully – and, indeed, American Sniper – this is about a hero whose actions are called into question … and like The 15:17 to Paris, this is about someone who takes quick-thinking action that thwarts a terrorist attack. It’s always been a mistake to consider Eastwood a simple conservative – American Sniper was widely hailed by MAGA folk who seemingly missed the message that its protagonist was put in impossible situations and then destroyed by his part in the War on Terror, and Richard Jewell comes at the material from a different direction, framed in part as an indictment of the American news media which might be seen as a rebuke to leftist expose movies like Spotlight or All the President’s Men but also fits into a tradition of anti-tabloid cinema dating back to The Front Page or Five Star Final which last got this vicious in Absence of Malice.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a Paul Blart lookalike, is introduced as a prissy, comic figure with a menacing edge – a supply clerk in a legal firm who strikes up a friendship of sorts with lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), and quits his cart-trundling gig to pursue a dream of working in law enforcement, which gives Bryant pause and prompts him to give the big kid some sound advice about not turning into an asshole when he puts a uniform on. Then, in a crucial stretch which a more cut and dried movie would have dropped, Jewell is seen as a strutting campus cop, barging into a dorm room with a nightstick to crack down on beer-drinking … and dismissed by a faculty head (Charles Green) for overzealousness. It seems he has turned into an asshole – and what we learn about his other attempts to be a cop or equivalent suggest that he’s deeply unsuited for the role, especially if it involves interaction with the public, though he’s puppy-keen to ingratiate himself with cops and feds and other lean, trim men of action.
The Olympics come to Atlanta in 1996, and Jewell gets work as a security guard at a concert site … and his eagerness to be zealous about it pays off when he spots a suspicious backpack that turns out to be a bomb. It goes off, but Jewell’s actions save lives – though he admits some drunken college kids he was hassling also saved lives by knocking the pack over so it discharged nails into the air rather than the crowd. Finally the hero he wants to be, and adored by his Mom (Kathy Bates), Jewell isn’t above crowing over his achievement – a book deal looms – but things turn round for him when FBI agent Shaw (Jon Hamm) leaks to mercenary journo Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) – who sleeps with the fed to get the story and generally reps the worst of the media – that in the absence of other leads, Jewell is himself the primary suspect in the investigation. Suddenly, the Jewells are besieged by baying packs of reporters and he has to reach out to Watson, the only lawyer he knows, to mount a defence – which isn’t easy given his ingrained impulse to look up to authority and want to be considered one of the good guys.
Screenwriter Billy Ray and actors Hauser and Rockwell get a lot of wince-inducing comedy mileage out of Jewell’s perhaps neuroatypical knack for saying the wrong thing … revealing a suspicious in-depth knowledge of how IEDs are made and work and cheerfully showing off about it, producing a Rambo-level arsenal (‘we are in Georgia’) when the FBI want to search his house, and generally fitting the profile of dissociated loner with psychological issues (it’s not mentioned, but he looks a bit like the serial killer Edmund Kemper, who was also a police wannabe) who lives with his Mom. Even when told point-blank by his lawyer to shut up, Jewell can’t keep quiet … and Hauser is funny and affecting whenever he goes off on one, but brings himself up short as he shows he is aware of what he looks like and what other people think of him.
That tetchy grumpiness which is Eastwood’s abiding characteristic as actor and director is fully present here – and it’s hard not to read a film which demonises the FBI and the mainstream media as playing to a very specific 2020 demographic, though Richard Jewell digs deeper into the character of its unlikely hero than a propagandist exercise needs to – as did American Sniper, come to that – and it’s worth remembering that the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, was an anti-abortion/anti-gay far right domestic terrorist.