On some level, I think we all want to be like Clint Eastwood. For many people, that may take the form of wanting to emulate one of his iconic characters. For others, it may be how this 89-year-old is still doing what he loves: making movies. And those movies make money and spark conversation, even when they do not work as well, as is the case with Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell.”
The film tells the story of the titular wannabe cop (played here by Paul Walter Hauser) who, while working as a security guard, found the bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Jewell saved possibly hundreds of lives with his actions and was lauded as a hero, but when it leaked that the FBI had him pegged as their lead suspect, the full weight of the government – and media – came crashing down on him.
From a quality standpoint, the reason to see this movie is Hauser’s turn. He comes across as likable but weird in a charming, southern way. He does everything the film asks him with aplomb, making his character dark, pathetic and sympathetic by turns.
The all-star supporting cast also does well enough with far less meaty parts. Sam Rockwell is fun as Jewell’s abrasive, slovenly attorney. Olivia Wilde is borderline demonic as an ambitious reporter. Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw is doing the straight-laced government man he’s been doing since “Mad Men” went off the air. Kathy Bates gets a couple good scenes as Jewell’s worried mother.
Unfortunately, Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray give viewers extremely thin side characters that are significant enough that their lack of depth is noticeable. Rockwell gets probably the most layered character of the bunch, but Hamm and Wilde’s characters are borderline caricatures as the villains of the movie. We never get a sense of who they are as people or what their motivations are, as Eastwood and Ray only paint them as evil.
But the film promises that it might be something more, as the best part of the picture is its first 30-40 minutes. The filmmakers display a nuanced understanding of Jewell in these early scenes, portraying him as a person who contains multitudes. He is someone who is just a little off, who goes too far with his zeal for “law and order,” as he phrases it.
Similarly, the filmmaking is at its best here. The moments leading up to the bomb exploding capture the celebratory atmosphere of the Olympics, while those afterwards show the visceral horror of terrorism and how the general public experiences the aftermath.
Once the main drama of the film begins, however, things begin to go off the rails. Jewell himself because a less interesting character, as all those wonderful moments from the first act become lost to the point the audience only sees him as a good-natured victim in all this. Any darkness or idiosyncrasies are cast aside or used for comedic relief, which makes this character less human.
The film likewise loses any such depth and complexity the longer it goes on because it succumbs to a feeling of simplicity and seething anger. The fury the filmmakers seem to feel about how Jewell was treated, which was abhorrent, does not seem like righteous anger or justified indignation. It feels like the bitter petulance of someone with a holier-than-thou attitude that is off-putting and lessens the effectiveness of “Richard Jewell’s” ideas.
Despite those issues, the film is worth seeing because it may very well be polarizing, and that can lead to some interesting discussions with friends. More so than many films, the experience moviegoers have with “Richard Jewell” may very well depend on their preconceived ideas. I give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.
“Richard Jewell” stars Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm and Kathy Bates. It is rated R for language including some sexual references and brief bloody images and runs 2 hours and 9 minutes.