For much of this Clint Eastwood directed film, I sat squirming in my seat. A journalist was behaving extremely unethically in pursuit of a story, a story which, as it turned out, she got completely wrong. An FBI agent was also behaving unethically, and jumping to conclusions, which meant he was about to publically humiliate an innocent man over the bombing of an entertainment venue at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And the other reason to squirm was that the innocent man in question, Richard Jewell, was so utterly naive and trusting that you just cringed, and then cringed some more.
Clint Eastwood takes the true story of Richard Jewell, and, as he has often done, simply tells the story. No frills. Solid directing and nothing flashy. Good editing. But a compelling story, and a good script, and a good cast.
Paul Walter Hauser, as Richard Jewell, is the key role and he carries it off superbly. We we feel conflicting emotions watching him. We’re sorry for him, we’re angry at him, we pity him. At times he is pathetic and at times he shows us a simple courage and nobility that runs deep to the character’s core. Richard Jewell is desperate be a genuine law enforcement officer himself, and so goes out of his way to help the very people who have mistakenly decided he is guilty. It’s a strong tragic theme of the story and Walter Hauser gives this inner turmoil of Jewell’s character superbly well
Around Paul Walter Hauser is a superb cast, and they are a delight to watch. Sam Rockwell as Richard’s lawyer, Watson Bryant, is as compelling as ever. In some movies the heroes are law enforcement, sometimes they are indeed journalists, but in this film, it’s the lawyer who carries that burden and Rockwell does it with a genuine warmth and affection for Richard Jewell, as much as he is constantly frustrated by him.
The relationship between Rockwell’s Watson and his office assistant Nadya, as played by Nina Arianda, is also worth a mention, as the pair spark off each other in a lovely back and forth which eventually leads ..somewhere. They offer the film its light relief, only from time to time, but enough to give the uncomfortable story some light and shade.
The emotional heart of the story lies in the relationship between Richard and his mother Bobi, played by Kathy Bates. Not sure if one needs to say more than her name, but she is a class actress and her scene near the end where she confronts the media is a telling piece of acting.
But it’s the roles of the film’s bad guys which deserve the most scrutiny in some ways. Could FBI agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm) really have been so gullible as to be taken in by the wiles of Atlanta Journal reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). Could Scruggs have been so brazen and without scruple to do what she did to get the story? This part of the film has drawn criticism, and certainly neither the FBI nor the media come out of this with any credit. But if this indeed is how they acted in this particular circumstance, then we’re entitled not to like them. I did think the way Olivia Wilde’s Scruggs was shown to take a different position by film’s end was perhaps the movie’s weakest point. I just didn’t buy the transformation. An experienced reporter would have known full well the emotions that were going to be in play while covering a story like that.
I think that’s a relatively small concern in the big scope of the film. Eastwood as usual keeps the pace up, allows the actors to do their work, and this is no better illustrated than in the actual depiction of the bombing. We know what’s coming, but we’re still drawn into the tension of the scene.
Eastwood turns 90 this year. Richard Jewell is one of his best. And that’s saying something. Highly recommended.