WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
The true story of how a security guard who saved countless lives from a bomb at a music festival celebrating Atlanta’s hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, suddenly went from being a hero to being endlessly harassed by the FBI and the media alike as the one and only suspect of the crime, simply because he happened to fit the profile of a "lone bomber".
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Returning once again to true stories of ordinary human bravery, Clint Eastwood’s latest film is also one that uses the events of nearly twenty-five years ago to comment on our current reality. Even if, ultimately, it doesn’t hit with quite the same power as his very best movies (Gran Torino, Unforgiven), Richard Jewell still finds the director on both very focused and very fine form.
Eastwood is a noted libertarian, so it’s hardly surprising to see him drawn to a story that vilifies the government while glorifying the quiet heroism of an ordinary working man, but the main target of his ire here is quite clearly a mass media that is so all-consumed with sensationalist headlines and selling as much copy as possible that it will blithely trample all overdue process, civil rights and empirical truth along the way. It’s a film that is not afraid of sentimentality and subtlety is not the name of the game here, but there is a fiery passion at the heart of Richard Jewell that makes for an intriguing and effective counterpart to Eastwood’s unfussy professionalism as a filmmaker.
Admittedly, there is a slight whiff of opportunism about a film that, at a time when the president of the United States of America calls the media the enemy of the people, is a savage indictment of that same media. On the other hand, though, his clear distrust of the government doesn’t come through anywhere near as powerfully in this film as it does in the constant, real-world media coverage of what is surely one of the most distrustful US administrations in living memory.
And yet, facts are facts. And it’s probably unfair to ascribe a motive to Eastwood that may be, at very best, totally coincidental. What’s interesting, though, is that for a “true story” it actually does seem like Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (working off a book by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwin, which was itself an expansion on an article by Marie Brenner) have stayed very, very close to the true events – except for one crucial exception: Kathy Scruggs, as portrayed by Olivia Wilde in the film, was, by all estimates, nowhere near as parasitic or as lascivious as she is portrayed here.
Scruggs is basically used as a representative of the worst kind of journalist but, regardless of whether the film’s distorted depiction of her is simply a case of dramatic license or something more purely critical, it’s an odd and rather unfair departure from the facts in a film that is otherwise so accurate. She is granted a greater level of humanity later on in the film, to be fair, but the film has enough examples of the media acting monstrously that there was really very little need to transform a woman who struggled with major depression and drug dependency until her untimely death of an overdose in 2001 into a lazy “vulture-journalist” caricature.
This is more the pity because it’s the one truly sour note (albeit one that’s only full revealed with a bit of research into the real story) in an otherwise rock-solid piece of work. Eastwood is a director who, when he’s on form, makes very good, expertly crafted films that only occasionally wander into true greatness and, though that remains the case here, there is something to be said for the sheer competence and confidence on display in bringing such a remarkable and disturbing true story to life.
It’s a fairly long film, but it’s almost never less than entirely compelling and, for all that one could scoff at its occasional forays into cliché, Eastwood’s impeccable ability to create both tension and an uncanny reproduction of the sadness and frustration of those unjustly persecuted is an exceptional accomplishment that is far too easy to under-rate. Though, of course, Eastwood hardly manages it alone and, along with the sympathetic, humane script, he has a murders row of incredibly talented actors to bring this true story to life.
Kathy Bates all but steals the show as Richard’s mother Bobbi; Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda and Ian Gomez are all excellent as crucial supporting players in Richard Jewell’s story; and there isn’t a film on the planet that isn’t improved by Sam Rockwell, who is dependably fantastic as Richard’s lawyer and public mouthpiece. The star of the film, though, is clearly Paul Walter Hauser as our eponymous hero. Richard Jewell is a character that is clearly all too easy to turn into a one-note caricature, but Hauser brings plenty of subtlety, compassion and depth to the role – imbuing Richard with a realness that could so easily have been lost in a script that is clearly unafraid at times to paint in broad strokes.
Like many of Clint Eastwood’s latter-day work, Richard Jewell is struggling to make back even its modest budget, but it once again proves that despite the occasional misstep (has he ever released a more reviled film than the 15:17 to Paris?), the now ninety-year-old filmmaker still has plenty to say and an undiminished ability with which to say it. A story this important, told with this level of clear-eyed efficiency, deserves a far greater audience than it has so far gotten. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s still very, very good, indeed. The true story of how a security guard who saved countless lives from a bomb at a music festival celebrating Atlanta’s hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, suddenly went from being a hero to being endlessly harassed by the FBI and the media alike as the one and only suspect of the crime, simply because he happened to fit the profile of a “lone bomber”.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: