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Following 2014’s successful, albeit controversial American Sniper, 2016’s Sully, and 2018’s 15:17 to Paris, the legendary director Clint Eastwood presents another real-life story of a hero (or hero-to-some). This time the subject is the titular Richard Jewell, a security guard at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, whose vigilance and diligence on the job helped save lives in a bombing attack at the Olympic park, but also made him FBI’s prime suspect in the ensuing investigation and an easy target for sensationalist media.
While heroism in one form or another emerges as an obvious leitmotif in Eastwood’s recent films, Richard Jewell does not strike the viewer as a mere variation on a theme. On the contrary, Eastwood takes a different angle each time—whichever angle he feels is appropriate to his subject—and this establishes different thematic emphases in each individual film.
In Richard Jewell, we see the director deliver a poignant social critique, something which he has often managed to avoid, even in his more politically contentious films, like the Chris Kyle biopic. But there is no talking about the Richard Jewell case without making an indictment of the FBI and the American media landscape.
We first meet the protagonist (Paul Walter Hauser) as a hard-working, polite supply-room clerk who lives with his mother and aspires to work in law enforcement, hoping to be able to protect people. Later in life, his zeal for enforcing the law leads him to losing his job at a sheriff’s office and campus security. But when he gets a security gig at the Atlanta Olympics, he finds himself at the right place at the right time, and he spots a backpack bomb in time to save lives.
Unfortunately, his heroic moment in the limelight quickly turns into a nightmare, and the bulk of the film deals with this aftermath: due to his past record and personal quirks, the FBI, represented mainly by agent Shaw (Jon Hamm), takes aim at him. To make matters worse, an ambitious, unscrupulous journalist named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) uses her feminine wiles on the agent to get information about the investigation, which suddenly shines an altogether different spotlight on the well-meaning, by-the-book Richard.
A scene in which Wilde’s character exchanges sex for a story tip has also been a source of controversy following the film’s release. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where Scruggs worked as a crime reporter, dismissed the portrayal as speculative (which it certainly is, there being no evidence of such an exchange) and inappropriate, since the journalist in question is unable to defend herself. Real-life Kathy Scruggs died of a prescription drug overdose in 2001. But the screenwriter Billy Ray defended the script, adding that the paper is just trying to divert attention from its own unvetted reporting, which almost ruined the life of a man who saved hundreds of lives. Ultimately, that is what the movie is about, and ACJ’s reporting on the Richard Jewell case is now related in journalism schools as a cautionary tale about revealing suspects’ names without corroborating evidence.
But controversy aside, Eastwood proves that he can still shoot a great film as he approaches his 90th birthday. The story has good pacing, and even if we know the outcome, we are carried through the twists and turns by our sympathy for the hero of the story. A crucial aspect in bringing this story to life is also an exceptional cast, in particular Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell, Sam Rockwell as his authority-averse lawyer, Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother (her impassioned speech towards the end of the film is certainly a highlight), and Olivia Wilde as Kathy Scruggs, who even in her limited time onscreen manages to bring her character’s strong personality to life.
Richard Jewell premieres in cinemas on February 21.