After the failed experiment that was 2018’s The 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood has bounced back with Richard Jewell, the compelling, based-on-a-true story biopic of the man who went from hero to villain to forgotten footnote in the summer of 1996. Jewell, who is credited with saving countless lives at the Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, fell prey to (as the movie reminds us) two of the most powerful forces in the world—the U.S. government and the media. The FBI put him at the top of their list of suspects (since they had nothing else to go on), and reporters fell right in step (because who cares about the facts, when you can sell newspapers).
Paul Walter Hauser (brilliant in 2017’s I, Tonya) is near perfect as Jewell, not only looking the part (talk about being born to play a role) but expertly bringing to life a man who has long deserved to have his story known. Jewell, who passed away from heart failure in 2007, continued, even after his exoneration, to live his last decade under a dark cloud of suspicion, and Eastwood’s film pulls no punches in its effort to set the story straight and give the man his due.
Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) begins the story in 1986, with Jewell, despite being eager for a career in law enforcement, pushing the supply cart around the office building where Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) practices law. The two men click immediately, which leads to Bryant being Jewell’s first call after the FBI brings him in for questioning 10 years later. Eastwood portrays it as a rock-solid, convivial friendship, and the palpable chemistry between Rockwell and Hauser sets the foundation for the entire film.
The other half of the film tackles the criminal investigation and the media, particularly the methods of real-life Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who passed away in 2001. The film has come under fire for alleging Scruggs traded sex for information from composite-character FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in order to break the story that Jewell was the prime suspect—Ray and the studio (Warner Bros.) stand by it, even as the paper has threatened legal action as a result.
It seems clear that Eastwood, while proving he still has something left in his 89-year-old tank, is bringing his own agenda to the party, going above and beyond to paint the FBI and the media as a gaggle of bumbling idiots and/or villains… which is ironically how they (and much of the world) saw Jewell at the time. But in the end, only the people who were there know for sure how it all went down. What really matters is that we now know a lot more about a man who, on a muggy night in July 1996, saved countless lives. Richard Jewell is a fascinating and riveting portrait of that hero.