Richard Jewell (2019)
The world will know his name and the truth.
The key to Richard Jewell the film is that the titular character is not a particularly likable man.
Not by the standards of our current culture, at any rate. Overweight, earnest, and not too bright, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) lacks the social graces to put people at ease even when he’s trying to help them. It takes rare perceptiveness, as in the case of lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), to look past Jewell’s off-putting demeanor and see the good man within. Thanks to a prior friendship established when Jewell was an office supply clerk at Bryant’s law firm, Bryant understands Jewell’s essential humanity and desire to do good. The rest of the world? They see a drawling redneck wannabe cop pulling duty as a security guard and pretending he’s on the same level as the actual police officers he interacts with. He’s a joke, and not a particularly funny one.
The conflict between appearance and character, perception and reality, the haves and have nots, lie at the heart of Richard Jewell, the latest offering from director Clint Eastwood, which traces — and simplifies — the media and legal maelstrom that erupted when Jewell, working as a security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, discovered a bomb in crowded Centennial Park. Although the device exploded, resulting in injuries and death, Jewell was hailed as a hero for his quick-thinking and professionalism — until he immediately came under suspicion and was subsequently pilloried by the media and hounded by the FBI. Desperate, under siege, and with no one else to turn to, Jewell calls Bryant, and we — and history, more or less — proceed from there.
The media, in this case, is most directly represented in Eastwood’s film by reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). At the same time, the FBI’s main face is agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm playing a composite character), both exceptionally beautiful people, successful and well-regarded, and both holding the schlubby Jewell in absolute contempt. Shaw is one hundred percent convinced that Jewell planted the bomb; ‘You always look at the guy who found it.’ He insists. Scruggs is just after column inches; Jewell is a story to her, not a person.
The dichotomy Eastwood is setting up here is considerably less than subtle but certainly effective in the moment: there’s us, the ordinary people, like Jewell and his doting, down-home momma, Bobi (Kathy Bates in typical fine form), and there’s the Beautiful People, the elites, who will never see you as being on an equal footing and will slap you down if you ever even try to breach the gates of their preserve, no matter what actual deeds you have done to earn elevation. Certainly, in the world of the film, Shaw and Scruggs are just local talent, but the symbolic weight of the casting stands: these are the Haves. Richard and his momma are the Have Nots.
Eastwood has form for this. His appeal to Middle America, and arguably what we now think of as Trump’s America, is longstanding. Not just when portraying the hyperviolent antiheroes of the Dirty Harry and Dollars movies, either; his knockabout comedies Every Which Way but Loose (1978) and any Which Way You Can (1980) most ably demonstrate his understanding of what appeals to the cheap seats, what would play on what used to be the drive-in circuit. The idea of Eastwood the American Artist only really coalesced around 1992’s Unforgiven, although his prior filmmaking record isn’t light on excellence (on that note, 1990’s White Hunter, Black Heart is worth your time); Eastwood the American Populist is a much more well-established brand, and you could argue that it’s one he’s more comfortable working with. Even his better-reviewed later films, such as Gran Torino (2008), straddle the line between both, any filmmaking sophistication in service to a fairly old-fashioned idea of what America is, and what America wants, and what America thinks.
What America thinks today — and this is clear to anyone with eyes, I feel — is that there is a privileged class set in opposition to the average workaday American that is determined to keep them down, and this is a sentiment that transcends political polarities. Richard Jewell very much plays into this, demonizing Big Government and the Capital M Media savagely as they grind Jewell’s life into a fine powder and sift it for evidence of guilt; if they did it to him, they could do it to you.
Complicating this is the presence of Rockwell’s Bryant, a driven, crusading lawyer who stands with a foot on either side of the line, given access to Scruggs and Shaw’s world — Rockwell’s movie-star looks are his passport in the visual language of the film — but humane enough to engage with the Jewells. He’s also poor, or at least not well off; indeed, over the course of the film he becomes less affluent, his decreasingly wealthy status coinciding with his growing sympathy for Jewell. It’s really Bryant who is our point of view character; the script, by prolific screenwriter Billy Ray, Captain Phillips (2013), knows that asking us to plug directly into Richard’s experience might be a bridge too far, but allows us to react with exasperated surprise along with Bryant when Richard, for example, displays his burgeoning gun collection just prior to an FBI raid on his home. The quality being evinced here is sympathy, not empathy; we, through Bryant, feel sorry for Jewell’s travails but are a step removed from picturing ourselves as him.
Which is not a comfort offered to character actor Paul Walter Hauser, who delivers an extraordinary performance as the well-meaning, discomfiting, awkward, loving, overbearing Jewell. It’s one of those perfect matches of performer and role. Hauser’s natural physicality and demeanor bring a sense of lived experience to the part; this is a guy who knows what it is to be uncomfortable in his own skin, to feel out of place among the beautiful people (he’s a character actor in the American film industry, for Christ’s sake — it’s not that big a stretch). Hauser isn’t a total fresh find — you’ve seen him in I, Tonya (2017) and BlacKkKlansman (2018), at least — but it’s difficult to imagine another major role coming his way that will so perfectly align with his capabilities. That’s a slam on the state of affairs in the industry and the art form, not Hauser; he demonstrates here that he is a sublimely talented performer.
I recently wrote about Adam Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems (2019) and how that really forces us to confront our own capacity for empathy with a supremely unlikeable character. Eastwood doesn’t go nearly so far with Richard Jewell here as the Safdie brothers did there, but similar territory is being explored. At the very least, we’re being asked to interrogate our notions of heroism, humanity, and dignity in ways that mainstream cinema at the moment seems loathe to. Richard Jewell walks and quacks like a fairly rote one-man-against-the-world conventional drama, but Hauser’s performance and an admirable refusal to not deliver pat answers to the questions it raises means it pulls far more weight than you might initially expect.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson