Clint Eastwood’s recent fascination with true stories surrounding ordinary men become unlikely heroes can be evidently seen in his past directorial efforts including Sully (2016) and The 15:17 to Paris (2018). While the former turned out to be one of Eastwood’s best directorial efforts in recent years, his latter was sadly a huge disappointment both commercially and financially. Thankfully, his latest fact-based drama in Richard Jewell leans towards the former.
The title of the movie refers to the real-life titular character played by Paul Walter Hauser, a security guard who always dreamt of a career in law enforcement. We first met him working as an office supply clerk at the Small Business Administration, where he gets to know the lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). But he eventually quit his job and finds himself working as a security guard at Piedmont College, even though he doesn’t last long after a series of complaints filed against him.
Then comes the summer of 1996 during the Olympic Games in Atlanta, where Richard Jewell stationed at Centennial Park as a security guard. One night, he discovers a suspicious backpack underneath a bench, in which it turns out to be a pipe bomb. Thanks to Jewell’s sharp sensibility and observation, he and the rest of the security team and law-enforcement officers manage to clear the area and save thousands of lives right before the bomb detonates.
From there, he suddenly finds himself becoming the national hero of the Centennial Park bombing but his fame is shortlived when FBI agent-in-charge Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) begins to suspect his motive. When the FBI decides to open a case against him, Richard Jewell soon becomes wrongfully accused of planting a bomb at the Centennial Park and the only person he can trust to help clear his name is Watson Bryant.
Richard Jewell benefits from Clint Eastwood’s typically economical direction that works well in his favour. This is especially true during the first half of the movie, where Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray — who adapted it from Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell — expertly setting up the scenes chronicling from Richard Jewell’s mundane and introverted life to his unlikely moment of fame saving lives from the exploding bomb at the Centennial Park. The pivotal scene that takes place in Centennial Park deserves special mention for its well-crafted suspense and dramatic tension.
Now, if the rest of the movie can live up to the same dramatic heights of the earlier scenes, Richard Jewell would have resulted in a top-notch fact-based drama. But the second half involving subsequent scenes of Richard Jewell dealing with the media and FBI while trying to clear his name turns out to be less engaging. It even feels a little heavy-handed at times that could have used some trimming.
Still, if you can get past some of the flaws, Richard Jewell remains a reasonably solid piece of work from the 89-year-old Clint Eastwood. He successfully brings out the best in his ensemble cast, where each of them delivers superb performances all around. This includes Jon Hamm in his perfectly no-nonsense turn as FBI Agent Tom Shaw while Olivia Wilde’s feisty supporting role of a determined Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) news reporter Kathy Scruggs and Kathy Bates’ Oscar-nominated portrayal of a devoted mother each deserve a mention here.
Then, there’s Paul Walter Hauser in his breakthrough and sympathetic lead performance as the title character, Richard Jewell. Sam Rockwell, who plays Jewell’s attorney Watson Bryant, steals most of the show with his sardonic turn that adds a necessary dosage of humour to the otherwise dramatic approach of the film.