On July 27, 1996, a pipe bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, just as the world had gathered for the Summer Olympics. Two people died; hundreds were injured from shrapnel. The body count could’ve and would’ve been exponentially higher if it weren’t for a burly, nebbish security guard named Richard Jewell. In a moment of uncharacteristic intrepidity, Jewell spotted a suspicious backpack, alerted the police, and began moving civilians away from danger. He enjoyed a glimmer of adulation, before the Feds and the media made an abrupt turn and outed him as the prime suspect.
Jewell’s saga is an ugly micro-moment in our recent history, and an unfortunate cautionary tale of how quickly a good name can be smeared in the Information Age. Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell begins in the mid-80s, as its titular subject (Paul Walter Hauser) schlubs as a gofer for a small law firm. Everyone marginalizes him, except for a clever, prickly attorney named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). The men strike up a casual friendship, wherein Jewell speaks of his ambition to get into law enforcement.
Flash forward a decade, and Jewell has squandered an opportunity to enter his chosen profession. Over-zealous and socially awkward, Jewell tends to escalate confrontations and rub his superiors the wrong way. He ends up working as a university rent-a-cop, pouring out beer and getting mocked by slurring frat boys. Unfortunately, his rigid attitude torpedoes yet another gig, and Jewell falls back on working security for the ’96 Olympics.
In the aftermath of the bombing, Jewell earned a brief moment in the sun, but his surly earnestness came back to bite him. The word soon emerged that Jewell was a troublemaker at his previous jobs. And he lived in an apartment with his mom (Kathy Bates). And he had a cache of guns in his closet. Mind you, the FBI had absolutely no firm evidence linking him to the attack. He just sorta matched their profile. From this rickety start point, the Feds made him their main suspect, a fact which soon leaked to the media.
What follows is an enduring stain on the Bureau. The lead agent (Jon Hamm) attempts to lure a confession out of Jewell under sketchy pretenses: Jewell is told to sign a “pretend” document acknowledging his Miranda Rights, unaware that it’s the real thing. They flip his life upside down, rifling his garbage and seizing his mom’s granny panties.
If law enforcement serves up this destructive alley oop, the media obligingly slams it home. Newspapers paint Jewell as a slobbering monster–a killer disappointed by the decided lack of bodies. An ambitious local reporter (Olivia Wilde) prints barroom whispers as hard facts. Even Tom Brokaw shamefully fanned the flames: “They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well.” Jewell’s saga resembles a perfect story of negligence, hysteria, and salaciousness.
The film, Eastwood’s strongest work in many years, gets anchored by Hauser’s lead performance. As the guileless, gullible Jewell, Hauser will make you ache for him, and grind your teeth every time he accidentally incriminates himself. Bates, as always, makes difficult performances seem effortless. Her Bobi Jewell blends quiet strength, wounded pride, and outright anguish as she watches her son get publicly flayed. Rockwell makes us feel every ounce of Bryant’s exasperation as Jewell seems determined to bumble his way into a prison cell. Eastwood directs with characteristic understatement, thus allowing this incredible cast to shine.
Ultimately, Richard Jewell plays like an immense tragedy, the garbage-strewn mess left after a media circus moves its dog-and-pony show somewhere else. Jewell, an odd, sweet-natured man who only sought to provide order and safety to the world around him, gets stuck picking up the rubble of what little life he had left. His story provokes anger and embarrassment, because as a fascinated public, we are all de facto accomplices to his destruction. The world convicted Richard Jewell without charge, only to chuck him into oblivion when the evidence didn’t add up–just one more body splayed in the detritus. This is a must-see film, one of the best of 2019.
131 min. R.