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Run Time: 2 hours 9 minutes
Stars: Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde
Writer: Billy Ray
Director: Clint Eastwood
Alfred Hitchcock said the way to make a viewer’s skin crawl is not to suddenly explode a bomb under your characters’ feet — but instead to show that hidden bomb five minutes before it’s set to detonate, then leave your audience helpless as the bomb’s targets obliviously sit right on top of it.
“That’s suspense,” Hitch said.
Clint Eastwood has already joined Hitchcock in the pantheon of legendary directors, but at 89 he’s still taking tips from the Master. Richard Jewell, Eastwood’s account of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, tortures us with hand-wringing buildups to not one, but several cataclysms— only one of which involves an actual explosive device.
Richard Jewell was a security guard assigned to an Olympics week concert at Atlanta’s Centennial Park. Spotting a suspicious backpack placed at the base of a camera tower, he notified his bosses and dashed up into the tower, screaming to everyone they had to evacuate. He was on the ground, pushing the dense throng of revelers away from ground zero, when the bomb exploded, killing one person and injuring 111.
Jewell was hailed as a hero, featured on magazine covers and in TV interviews, even as the FBI scrutinized him as a possible suspect. The initial probe was strictly routine — just as the spouse of a murder victim is always the first person of interest, so is the guy who supposedly finds a bomb.
But almost immediately, routine flew out the window. A former employer at Piedmont College, where Jewell had been a security guard, went to the FBI with stories of Jewell — perpetually single, grossly overweight, and socially awkward — acting inappropriately in his duties. Even worse, the Atlanta Journal Constitution got wind of the probe and splashed it all over the front page, taking unfiltered delight in pushing the hero-turned-demon narrative.
Eastwood, no friend of the press, relates Jewell’s story with vengeance-fueled energy. But you don’t have to be a Fake News zealot to share his indignation at what happened to Jewell — who despite complete exoneration by the FBI is still remembered primarily not as a hero of that day, but simply as the prime suspect.
As usual, Eastwood displays his astonishingly streamlined style of storytelling. There’s not a wasted beat in the film: We meet Richard, we acknowledge his eccentricities and, to be honest, we empathize a bit with those who find him somewhat weird. Even the buildup to the bombing, structured for maximum suspense and filmed right at the original Atlanta site, moves along at a steady clip.
But that’s not to say Eastwood doesn’t give his actors room to breathe. In fact, the characters in Richard Jewell are exquisitely crafted — no small feat, given how many of them there are.
Eastwood says the moment he saw Paul Walter Hauser as Tonya Harding’s bodyguard in I, Tonya, he knew he had his Richard Jewell. Indeed, with one look at Hauser fairly bursting out of his rent-a-cop uniform and peering at the world through suspicious, squinty eyes, you know he was born for this part. But looks are one thing: Hauser also provides telling glimpses of the principled man at Jewell’s core. Even as the FBI, with absolutely no evidence implicating him, grinds its heel to Jewell’s head, the man refuses to surrender his lifelong assertion that lawmen are basically good, motivationally pure. With heavy sighs and slumped shoulders, Hauser’s Jewell seems halfway resigned to accepting blame for the bombing if these guys insist he’s their guy.
“When are you gonna get mad?” demands his lawyer, a low-rent contract attorney played with perfectly calibrated disengagement by Sam Rockwell.
In reality, it’s just Clint Eastwood at work, planting another bomb. We can almost hear it, ticking away inside Richard Jewell as one indignity piles upon another: The FBI tries to trick him into signing away his Miranda rights…the bureau storms the apartment he shares with his mother and confiscates just about everything, including Mom’s beloved Tupperware…the newspaper continues a daily drumbeat of accusations through innuendo.
All that’s bad enough. But then they make his mother cry.
The actual detonation is muted, but Hauser portrays the moment with uncanny clarity. His face, formerly set in a mask of stoicism, suddenly seems to physically soften. As Jewell’s anger boils to the surface, he takes on an expression of near-peaceful serenity — finally released to do what his gut has been telling him to do from the start.
Eastwood lays the groundwork for lots of smaller explosions throughout the film. There’s a cathartic encounter between Jewell’s lawyer and the reporter who smeared him. And a simmering eruption as Richard faces off against his FBI accusers.
Then there’s the slow burn of Jewell’s emotional mother. As Bobi Jewell, Kathy Bates flits and fawns over her son. Doting and dewy-eyed, Bobi is clearly responsible for a lot of what is wrong with Richard — yet she is also his most enthusiastic champion. It all leads to Bates’ most powerful scene confronting the press, calling to mind a grieving mother presiding over a child’s funeral.
Stepping straight out of his Mad Men corner suite and into an FBI cubicle, Jon Hamm is deliciously infuriating as the button-down agent who cavalierly decides Richard Jewell is guilty, then never gives an inch. Square-jawed and steely-eyed, he’s the picture of that most scary of creatures: The man relentlessly doing evil, utterly convinced he is doing good.
The film’s principal ire, though, is reserved for the press. Olivia Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, the real-life Atlanta newspaper reporter who broke the story that Jewell was being investigated by the FBI, then persisted in pushing that line long after it was clear Jewell truly was the hero everyone thought he was. Much has been made of the film’s clear implication that Scruggs — who died in 2001 — traded sexual favors for tips from law enforcement officials. But while Eastwood is willing to offer Scruggs some measure of redemption, he’s not about to let the Fourth Estate off the hook so easily.
From its opening minutes, Richard Jewell builds an indictment against a press that trades in others’ misfortune and builds narratives guided more by audience interest than facts.
Most damning, Clint Eastwood depicts an industry that plants its own bombs under society’s essential underpinnings, then returns not to claim responsibility— but to profit from reporting on the carnage.
Featured image: Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Richard Jewell, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures