Directed by: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde. Runtime: 2h 11 min. Released: December 13, 2019.
American security guard Richard Jewell saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics but is vilified by journalists and the press who falsely reported that he was a terrorist. One of my favourite sub-genres of films are false accusation movies where the main character must clear their name with the help of others, and Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell falls into that category. It’s also a story of heroism that turns tragic when Jewell’s five minutes of fame turns into a nightmare.
This nightmare starts when Olivia Wilde’s character, journalist Kathy Scruggs gets a report from one of the leading federal agents, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), that they’re investigating Jewell as the bomber. The Feds think he fits the profile because he’s always wanted to be in authority but not able, and this on his resume would catapult him into an authority role. From here, the feds they tunnel-vision onto Jewell because they think it just fits so well.
Wilde and Hamm are both convincingly despicable. Their unlikability feels unrealistic at times, especially Shaw because he’s so cruel to Jewell – and that’s not to mention the unethical things he and partner Brandon Walker (Mike Pniewski) do – but it all feels reflective of how nightmarish this situation must have been for the real Richard Jewell.
Paul Walter Hauser turns in easily one of my favourite performances of last year as Richard Jewell. He’s been on my radar since 2017’s I, Tonya as an absolute scene-stealer as Shawn there, but he steals the entire show here as Jewell. He plays mean security guard at the beginning well but that’s just because he wants respect, and you can tell Jewell just wants to do his job well.
His compassion is endless and his patience throughout this whole ordeal is heartbreaking because of the way he’s treated, they don’t deserve that patience. In key scenes he shows he’s just as angry as everyone else even if he doesn’t express it, but you can see it in his eyes. His scenes of vulnerability are great and the only thing that Jewell’s character is guilty of is respecting authority too much. It doesn’t spoil anything, but a scene of Jewell with eating a doughnut is great acting. That sounds silly without context, but it is one of the film’s best scenes.
Sam Rockwell is also great as Richard’s lawyer, Watson Bryant. His fight for Richard is nice and their chemistry is great. The chemistry shines from the opening scene as Richard briefly works at his firm and Watson is the only one who treats him as a person. Kathy Bates is heartbreaking as Richard’s mother Bobi Jewell, and Bates plays her with great vulnerability. If anyone has a harder time in this situation than Richard, it’s his mother and she shows this in a few key scenes. Her recreation of Bobi Jewell’s real-life speech is flawless as she pleas the press to lay off Richard.
The story itself has good pacing and feels like an accurate depiction of what happened. Screenwriter Billy Ray does a strong job with the screenplay, adapting a magazine article by Marie Brenner. The scene where the bomb goes off and its lead-up is so suspenseful and is well-directed by Clint Eastwood. This is truly just a great story of a regular guy caught in an undeserved media circus.