Clint Eastwood’s early persona was a rebellious type who played by his own rules. Law and due process hardly mattered to Harry Callahan, which is why they is an ongoing debate over whether Magnum Force and the other Dirty Harry movies are fascist. Now that Eastwood is past his prime, his late period work (particularly as a filmmaker) are about different kinds of men who follow their personal code. Sully took dramatic license with the infamous plane crash on the Hudson, making it about a great man stymied by an unfair bureaucracy, while The Mule is about a veteran who breaks the law to provide for his family. Now we have Richard Jewell, a docudrama about the fallout from the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta. There is an anger in this film, particularly at the strongest institutions in America, and that anger is so blinding that the film sometimes undermines its purpose.
You may recognize Paul Walter Hauser is the “criminal mastermind” in I, Tonya, or a white supremacist in BlacKkKlansman. Here he plays Jewell as a man who believes in the justice system because, as a white man in the South, it never had an occasion to fail him. Jewell drifts in and out of law enforcement jobs – his erratic behavior keeps him from joining the police force – until he serves as a security guard during the Olympics. Jewell is quick to spot a pipe bomb, and his efforts saved countless lives.
The media treats Jewell as a hero, at least until the FBI decides he is the lead suspect. Jon Hamm plays the agent in charge of the investigation, one that he almost immediately sullies by tipping off an eager journalist (Olivia Wilde). Now that the media seizes on Jewell, a down on his luck lawyer (Sam Rockwell) is the only chance at clearing his name.
Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray present a transparently one-sided view of what happened. Hamm and Wilde are hilariously incompetent, to the point they are implausible. Wilde’s character in particular is a caricature of a journalist: in her first scene, she talks about her breasts, abuses her female coworkers, and flirts with her boss (it is ironic she directed Booksmart this year, a film that used feminism to drum up credibility). It is as if Eastwood does not trust the details of Jewell’s story are enough to provoke outrage, so he stacks the deck in his favor. This also leads to incredibly frustrating scenes, like when Jewell goes against his self-interest and attempts to help the FBI. Hauser is terrific as Jewell, showing a man who behaves compulsivlye and without much self-awareness. By the time he finally gains some skepticism, it comes as a relief.
Part of what makes Richard Jewell so frustrating is that there is a good movie in between all the eye-rolling bits. Eastwood has made his share of thrillers, and there is real suspense in scenes where Jewell nearly confesses to the bombing. Kathy Bates is terrific as Jewell’s mother, although she strikes similar notes to her character in The Waterboy. Rockwell is solid as the voice of reason, and his frequent profane outbursts are nice antithesis to the Kafkaesque logic of Jewell’s unfortunate saga. In other words, there is a material for an understated human drama. Billy Ray is no stranger to this type of film, either, since Shattered Glass and Breach also depict recent dark episodes in American history.
The problem with Richard Jewell ultimately falls onto Eastwood, who produced and directed. Maybe he does not trust his audience, and wants to make sure they share his outrage that heroic men do not get the credit they deserve. He clearly has little interest in historical accuracy, since the real Olympic bomber comes with an asterisk (the film conveniently omits he was a pro-life, right-wing terrorist). Eastwood’s recent films are all about giving unsung heroes the credit he feels they deserve. Indeed, Richard Jewell’s name was tarnished by indifferent institutions who made light of his appearance and demeanor, and yet Eastwood oversells the message to the point it is easy to meet it with skepticism. Like the real Jewell, this film could vastly improve by not laying the self-aggrandizement on so thick.