What’s a Law-Abiding American Supposed To Do?
No one ever accused Clint Eastwood of nuance. His new film Richard Jewell dramatizes the true story of the titular everyman (Paul Walter Hauser) fighting for his life in the face of classic right-wing bugaboos: the media and the government. “Horrific forces,” says his libertarian lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Yeah, screw basic societal pillars like a free press and federal law enforcement! Who needs them, anyway?
RICHARD JEWELL ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, John Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Paul Walter Hauser
Running time: 129 min.
Jewell gained national headlines as the security guard falsely accused of setting off a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. That seems unfair. Why exactly did that happen? Well, he was overzealous and vaguely threatening at a previous job. He had lingering resentment over unsuccessful attempts to become a cop. His home collection of assault weapons looked more like a survivalist’s arsenal. He refused to pay his income taxes. And he was a shy 33-year-old overweight bachelor living with his single mom. Apparently, those uncomfortable facts made him fit the profile of a “false hero.” How unreasonable.
Richard Jewell actually paints a surprisingly complex, sympathetic personal portrait of its wronged law enforcer, due in no small part to Hauser. His last major role was as a thick-headed white supremacist in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, another director not necessarily renowned for a light touch. Hauser’s performance here is more absorbing, thankfully, because he radiates a basic decency despite the injustice happening around him.
Eastwood is a no-nonsense filmmaker, and he directs Jewell in a measured, just-the-facts way. His unfussy screenwriter Billy Ray gives Jewell reams of polite, yes-ma’am-no-sir dialogue that amazingly manages to feel natural instead of robotic. Jewell is a good guy, not well socialized, not so smart, but fundamentally moral despite the hard knocks. “The world owes us both,” says Jewell’s put-upon working-class mom Bobi (Kathy Bates). “This is what we got. Do your job, son.”
That “do your job” work ethic is foundational in Eastwood’s career, especially in his filmography of iconoclasts, individualists, and go-it-alone idealists. It’s no surprise that Jewell’s lawyer is Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a rough but shrewd attorney who first meets Jewell 10 years earlier, when Jewell was the mail clerk at Bryant’s old law firm. Why did he go into private practice, asks Jewell? “Firms mean partners,” grumbles Bryant. These are men who don’t suffer fools and just want to do the work, even if it ruffles feathers or makes for bad office politics.
Which brings us to the villains in Richard Jewell, specifically Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) and FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). She’s high-cheekbone glamorous, he’s chiseled-chin handsome. They’re both slick, ambitious, and prefer the flash of a meaty hook over the tedium of methodical investigations. She’s the kind of hungry reporter who says things like “Anything crime-y going on?” He’s the kind of snide T-Man who hears people cite a contradictory lead like how the bomb threat came from a too-distant pay phone and says, “Fuck the pay phone!”
So, of course, Kathy rubs Tom’s crotch and promises sex for a scoop. Tom sneers, whispers that Jewell is a suspect, and they go fuck each other before they fuck over Jewell. Because free press bad! FBI bad! This kind of jaw-dropping caricature absolutely torpedoes Richard Jewell as a compelling docudrama. Yes, the press and the government have pockets of corruption and incompetence. But overwhelmingly their professions are noble and well-intentioned, and their staffs are full of hard-working people trying to do a good job. Strange that Eastwood doesn’t try to respect that, too.
What makes Richard Jewell rare and valuable is its heartfelt portrayal of right-leaning people who collect guns, love their mom, look up to authority, and want to do the right thing. It’s great to see the beautiful people vilified. Why, then, take the lazy way out and turn them into knee-jerk stereotypes? What an ignoble aspect of an otherwise noble film.