Following much of Clint Eastwood‘s later work, Richard Jewell is another biographical drama telling a story that Eastwood finds interesting in the same vein as Sully, The 15:17 to Paris and so on. Given Eastwood’s involvement, you can be sure there’ll be no shortage of talent to fill out the cast, but we’ll see if he’s selected a story with enough meat on the bone to make a compelling feature-length film, something that hasn’t always been the case of late.
After being given a bit of background on Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), the film brings us quickly to the signature event: the bombing of Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia. Jewell was working as a security guard that night and spotted the mysterious package, alerting local authorities. The device turned out to be a bomb that detonated, killing two and wounding 111 others, numbers that would’ve been much higher minus Jewell’s actions.
Hailed as a hero in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Jewell soon became the focus of the FBI investigation, a fact that was leaked and reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). The national media seized on the report, turning Jewell’s life upside down as they staked out his home. Under suspicion, Jewell reached out to attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who helped keep Jewell, who remained friendly toward the FBI, from being taken advantage of.
With the media fanning the flames, Jewell’s initial heroism is replaced by the idea that he was the bomber despite no charges being filed. After nearly three months as a person of interest, Jewell is quietly informed by FBI Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) that he’s no longer considered a suspect, even though Shaw, the source of the initial leak, lets Bryant know that he still thinks he’s guilty. The film ends with Bryant informing Jewell years later that the FBI had arrested Eric Rudolph, who confessed to the bombing.
Given that Jonah Hill was originally attached to the project as Jewell, it’s a testament to the largely unknown Hauser that we never found ourselves wishing someone else was handling the lead role. He does a good job of generating sympathy for the man who has his life turned upside down through no real fault of his own. How accurate Jewell is as such a good-natured, affable guy is unknown, but Hauser plays him as a simple, respectful man who truly doesn’t understand how he’s landed in this position.
As noted earlier, Eastwood’s decades in the business mean he gets A-list talent, plugging in the likes of Rockwell, Hamm and Kathy Bates in Hauser’s orbit to deliver strong supporting roles. The story, while not action packed, at least has enough legs that it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging too much, something both Sully and 15:17 to Paris both struggled with despite being much shorter films.
As we watched the film we found ourselves hoping that Wilde’s Kathy Scruggs was a composite of multiple reporters, much in the same way Hamm’s Agent Shaw is. It wasn’t, and it’s hard to imagine Eastwood, Wilde and company thinking portraying Scruggs as someone that sleeps with sources to get key info was a good move. She’s largely cast as the villain, along with Hamm, shown as a conniving headline chaser with no scruples. A late (and modest) redemption arc do nothing to really redeem the character.
While Richard Jewell doesn’t suffer from the aforementioned issues as other recent Eastwood efforts, it does struggle with a new one: there’s no real payoff. In fact, if there’s a crescendo to the movie it’s Bates (as Jewell’s mother) giving an impassioned speech. Charges are never pressed, there’s no “oh shit” moment when the FBI realizes they’re on the wrong path, nothing. There’s something to be said for not sensationalizing the events, but here it didn’t make for a very compelling final act.
THE BONUS FEATURES
A couple of short extras are available, one that deals with a behind the scenes look at the filming, and one that focuses on the historic event. They collectively run around 15 minutes and offer little of interest unless you’re wholly unfamiliar with the Olympic bombing.
Richard Jewell is well acted and slickly filmed, two things you can pretty much set your clock to with Eastwood in the director’s chair. It stumbles in the final act, though, when the real-life story’s anticlimactic conclusion spills over and makes for a dull finish.