I like to consider myself someone who is relatively clued up on big historical moments, but I have to admit that the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing was something that completely passed me by. In my defence, I was only 7! Of course, there is nothing like a good biographical drama to fill in some of the blanks, and with an Oscar nomination to its name, I went in hoping that Richard Jewell would be a good quality education.
The film tells the story of Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), an earnest but slightly odd security guard with an affinity for law enforcement who, after discovering a pipe bomb at an Olympic concert in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, briefly becomes an national hero before a newspaper outs him as the FBI’s number one suspect in the case.
Exploring the nature of a ‘trial by media’ and the ways in which Richard’s life circumstances, being a gun owning, authority loving white male still living with his mother (played by Kathy Bates), make him a perfect fit for the FBI profile, the film is a frustrating and anxiety inducing experience. Alongside showing Richard’s innate respect for the law, it points a particularly damning finger at law enforcement figures who choose to pin a crime to a person they ‘like for it’ rather than doing the hard work to make sure all of the pieces fit.
Whilst the real life story of the picture is enough to make it a gripping watch from start to finish, it does have to be said that direction at the hands of Clint Eastwood does feel somewhat mundane, at times even straight up bad. Nothing about the technical side of the film feels fresh or special, with one out of place dream sequence in particular feeling incredibly clunky and old fashioned. The tone of Eastwood’s right wing bias can be sensed more than it should be at certain points in the narrative, and the way that the film handles the characterisation and actions of real life journalist Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde), one of the few female characters in the film, is questionable at best. Scruggs is sadly deceased and therefore unable to defend herself, but the depiction of her swapping sex for stories is something that has been vehemently denied by her colleagues.
It’s a shame, I think, because amidst the directional mundanity and the highlighted questionable character choices, at the core of Richard Jewell there is a quite touching and affecting character drama. The protagonist is an oddball, but seemingly an oddball with his heart in the right place, and the film is a scary and effective depiction of just how quickly something can snowball if the wrong information ends up in the wrong hands. It’s kind of creaky and as a technical spectacle it’s certainly nothing to right home about, but I can’t deny that the emotional side of the story had me tearing up a couple of times.
Much of the emotion and sympathy that you feel for Richard throughout the story is thanks to a really great performance by Paul Walter Hauser. As someone who had never seen a clip or even a photo of the real Richard Jewell, my praise for his performance goes beyond any physical and audible similarities between the two. Hauser succeeds in producing a really endearing and sympathetic portrayal of a man that, whilst certainly having his own issues, particularly a need and desire for authoritative positions, certainly doesn’t deserve the absolute shit storm that tears through his life.
For her performance as Richard’s mother Bobi Jewell, Kathy Bates has nabbed herself a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, but I will put my neck on the line and suggest that perhaps it is the emotion of the story rather than the quality of the performance that might have swayed it for her. We all know how great Bates is at this point, and whilst she certainly dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s here, it’s nothing that isn’t well within the boundaries of her comfort zone. Perhaps I’m being slightly mean here, but compared to the film stealing work that Florence Pugh did in Little Women, for example, Bates’s Bobi Jewell is just kind of ‘okay’.
Sam Rockwell seems to be enjoying a golden era of great supporting performances in his career, adding the work done here as Richard’s friend and lawyer Watson Bryant to other standout turns in things like Vice, Jojo Rabbit and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Overall, Richard Jewell is a solid enough biographical drama that benefits from a genuinely interesting and emotionally arresting story, but some bang average direction and a tendency by Clint Eastwood to lean into some of his own agendas rather than strictly telling the story as it was prevent me from really loving it. Worth a watch along for Paul Walter Hauser who does some really great work, work that has largely gone unrewarded.