In 1986, Atlanta, an office supply clerk named Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) befriends a lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Jewell seems harmless, extremely friendly, and simple with a childlike innocence, often treating his friend with Snickers bars. Jewell aspires to be a policeman, or to even work in the secret service, as he believes in protecting people, warding off bad guys, and being a good person. For a time, he works as a university campus officer, but oversteps his mark and is too rough with students. Later, he seems to have found his niche as a security guard. His life utterly changes when working at a concert during the 1996 Summer Olympics, he discovers a bomb.
What’s interesting about ‘Richard Jewell’ is how effectively it establishes a pre-9/11 world. Safety and security were taken for granted, and the notion of danger inspired inconvenience rather than panic. The utter shock and disorientation that follows the bomb discovery and its detonation are expertly handled; and then the speed at which the public and media attention turn from heroicising Jewell to criminalising him is also effectively portrayed. Jewell gets swept up in it all so fast, with no one to guide him on how to handle the publicity, good then bad. Working against him is the pattern of ‘false heroes’ that emerged during the 80s to 90s, whereby a number of individuals set up crimes then “resolved them”, for example, Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Tom Shaw cites a fireman who saved people from a fire that it turned out he had started.
Clint Eastwood has unfortunately in his later years as a director had this habit of directing party scenes through the eyes of an old man, flailing at capturing the ecstasy and chaos of night time activities. It all just seems so organised and lacking in oomph, as one recalls the night club scene of ‘The 19:17 to Paris’ and house party scenes of ‘The Mule’ where Eastwood’s character sleeps with some hookers. It’s all a bit cringeworthy and similarly, the concert scenes here are a bit flat, try-hard and lethargic.
‘Richard Jewell’ has a great cast in Hauser, Rockwell (that guy just doesn’t turn in a bad performance, ever), Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde and Hamm, and it is an interesting story. Hauser does well to consistently keep the audience on side as the character can be so dumb, it’s infuriating, yet you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Amidst all the chaos, Richard remains calm and quietly resolute, and that inspires admiration. Hauser’s performance is undoubtedly the standout, delivering a terrific monologue in the finale, and while the others make very good supports, one is slightly baffled by Bates receiving an Oscar nomination for her short appearance.
As with Eastwood’s recent effort ‘Sully’, it’s an incredible story about an extraordinary individual. However it isn’t told in a particularly extraordinary way. One can’t help but mourn the fact that the peak of Eastwood’s directorial prowess seems far in the past now.