Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Richard Jewell

The indefatigable Clint Eastwood’s latest turn in the director’s chair tackles the real life story of 1990s security guard Richard Jewell in a biopic with strong playing alongside a few controversial decisions and queasy touches.

A security guard initially celebrated for his role in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Jewell is here played by the unfamiliar Paul Walter Hauser, although Jonah Hill was once attached to the role before he shed substantial weight.

Hauser (most recognisable for playing Margot Robbie’s dim-witted bodyguard in I, Tonya) put on 25 pounds to play Richard and he’s memorable here, even if his Jewell is an infuriating figure at times. We really feel for him, nevertheless, as his life is turned into a nightmare by the media and the powers-that-be, a subject that Clint keeps returning to with fictional and non-fictional films like True Crime, Mystic River, Changeling and even Sully.

The twentysomething Richard is seen in 1986 working as an office supply clerk, and despite his shyness and awkwardness he builds a pleasing rapport with slightly showboating attorney Watson Bryant (who else but Sam Rockwell?). A spell as a college security guard doesn’t go well, and he’s forced to move back in with his Momma Bobi (Kathy Bates) and years later take a gig at the Olympic Games ceremonies where, at first, all seems to be going well, as Kenny Rogers croons and everyone dances the Macarena.

On the second night, however, Richard unintentionally discovers a bomb and tries his darnedest to evacuate the crowds. Two people die and 111 are injured but it could have been so much worse, and at first he’s hailed as a hero, interviewed on TV, offered a book deal and treated like a legend by the police officers he’s previously tried so hard to impress. However, it all starts to go bad when a muck-raking article is penned by journo Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) of the Atlantic-Journal Constitution, and Richard is claimed to have actually planted the bomb himself, a bit of confidential information she got from an FBI agent named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm at his meanest and sourest), who should have kept his damn mouth shut.

Much has already been made about Hamm’s character (a problematically composite figure like Margot Robbie in Bombshell), and Wilde’s Kathy is even iffier. Scruggs, who died in 2001 and therefore, of course, can’t defend herself, is depicted by screenwriter Billy Ray as a stereotypical ball-breaking bitch who, in one scene, offers Jon’s Shaw sex so she can grab a scoop, something which has understandably upset Kathy’s family and friends. Her scenes are so crucial to the plot, and yet they’re unreliable – and unpleasant.

Still, Hauser, Bates and Rockwell are good, and Eastwood’s handling is more assured than it was in his lumbering The Mule, dopey The 15:17 To Paris, and so forth. And although it would definitely be seriously wrong to underplay the horror of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, the terrible event now seems like such a long time ago, and positively small-scale after the atrocities of September 11, the 2002 Bali bombings, the London terrorist attacks in 2005, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015, and so on.

Richard Jewell couldn’t have saved everyone from all of those, no matter how he tried.

Reviewer Rating

Richard Jewell (M) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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