Clint Eastwood experienced the second lowest ever opening of his career when Richard Jewell released in the US against Jumanji: The Next Level in mid-December 2019. It is shame because, despite a rough first hour or so where the veteran director seems to be working overtime to make this true story seem entirely unbelievable, Richard Jewell comes good as a simmering thriller of David and Goliath proportions.
I resisted looking up the man Richard Jewell as I prefer not to know how a story is going to end before I see a movie.
Suffice to say he was an awkward single guy who lived with his mum (Kathy Bates in an Oscar nominated role as Barbara “Bobi” Jewell), obsessed with law enforcement to the point that he’d fallen foul of authorities for impersonating a police officer.
Working as a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in his home town of Atlanta, Jewell discovers a backpack loaded with pipe bombs and sounds the alarm, before becoming the FBI’s prime suspect in the crime. What follows is Eastwood’s interpretation of a Vanity Fair article and a book about the case, wherein it becomes a tale about an unlikely hero taking the law into his own hands doggedly pursued by the federal government intent on bringing him down.
The cast is stacked with great names who at times deliver overly dramatic performances in one dimensional roles – Jon Hamm as the tough as nails FBI agent convinced of Jewell’s guilt. Olivia Wilde’s newspaper reporter obsessed with writing the next big story regardless of the cost. Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s old acquaintance who becomes his legal counsel in socks and sandals.
At the heart of the film, anchoring it with a rock solid performance as the gullible yet intuitive and learned law enforcement fan Richard Jewell is Paul Walter Hauser, who played a similar role in I, Tonya, coming across as a dumb fat rube, when it fact there is a lot more happening below the surface.
Sam Rockwell’s lawyer character Watson Bryant has a Russian assistant Nadya who makes her own observations about the lengths a government will go to persecute one of its own citizens.
Ultimately this is a story about trial by media and the power they hold, in tandem with the powers of the state. In Jewell’s case, the FBI exploited his compulsion to acquiesce to authority.
It feels like the film may be Eastwood’s revenge on the US intelligence services for their failure to thwart terrorism on home soil that took place 5 years after this event, instead chasing a small time guy who unwittingly made himself a target.
As Bryant says to Jewell as the media and FBI circle his home like a pack of hungry sharks – “Authority’s outside that window looking to eat you alive.”
3 & 1/2 Stars – “Worth A Look”