To Clint Eastwood, heroism is a heavy load to carry. As a movie star, he is best known for playing antiheroes such as the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry — characters who stalked across the screen with grim menace, as if burdened by the good they had to do in a dark and angry world. As a director, Eastwood has had a long and varied career, but of late, he’s been captivated by real-life stories of momentary heroes and underestimated men (some of whom aren’t really heroes at all). It’s no wonder, then, that Eastwood is drawn to the story of Richard Jewell, a man whose public bravery became a curse after the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.
Jewell was a security guard who discovered a backpack loaded with pipe bombs during a concert at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, alerting police and saving hundreds of lives from an act of domestic terrorism. Jewell’s initial moment of glory was short-lived. Soon he was eventually investigated by the FBI, a hot-piece of news broken by his hometown paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that led to him being vilified in the news, as the widespread speculation that Jewell himself had planted the bomb, which killed one person and injured over a hundred others, spread like wildfire. Though his name was eventually cleared, the condemnation dwarfed the praise. In turning the now-deceased Jewell into the protagonist of a film, Eastwood is catapulting him back into public view, but one of the reasons Richard Jewell works is because, decades after the incident, it’s skeptical of the spotlight.
The other reason Richard Jewell works is because it’s driven by a staggering lead performance from Paul Walter Hauser, best known until now for playing dim-witted supporting villains in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman. We first meet Jewell when he’s a mail clerk who has dreams of going into law enforcement but can never quite turn those aspirations into reality. He is observant and learns rules easily, but utterly struggles to convey authority — an early scene sees him harassing students as a campus policeman, unable to find the line between scolding them and shoving them to the ground. These are some of the most compelling scenes of Richard Jewell; Eastwood seems fascinated by Jewell’s pathetic streak and his glaring desire to impress authority figures at any cost. Those qualities, as much as anything, sabotaged him after the Atlanta bombing. It didn’t help matters at the time, though, that Jewell fit a certain stereotype. He’d also once been arrested for impersonating a police officer and was fired from that aforementioned campus policemen job for pulling over drivers off-campus; his earlier stint as a Sheriff’s deputy as well ended in similarly undignified circumstances. He was a wannabe, overweight mama’s boy who got tricked into an interrogation by the FBI field agents without any legal protection. Much as in Eastwood’s recent pieces of real-life storytelling, Richard Jewell re-creates the most crucial event of its title character’s existence: the moment when Jewell’s attention to detail helped him find the bombs. It’s a pretty tense sequence and one of the few moments where the cinematography really works — while there’s other long stretches (particularly in Jewell’s apartment) where the cinematography lacks the attempted claustrophobia so much that it practically feels phoned in.
One of the rather strong elements of Richard Jewell is how Eastwood takes pains to layer in his protagonist’s sadder, more human flaws. He’s certainly less of a paragon than Sully (who was played by Tom Hanks) and the do-gooder Americans who foiled a terrorist attack on a French train (who literally, for some reason, played themselves). Hauser tapes into Jewell’s tendency toward hangdog dejections beautifully, giving a performance miles away from the solid (but cartoonish) work he’s done on-screen before. The character’s allies aren’t exactly complex figures but they’re solid enough, including the tenacious lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who defends Jewell because he remembers him as a mail clerk, and Jewell’s sweet but indulgent mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates). The level of nuance in Jewell himself can’t exactly be said to the antagonists of the film. Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), the lead agent investigating Jewell, is portrayed as a cutthroat dirtbag, a man with a vendetta who turns on Jewell mostly because he sees him as a loser. And Hamm, doesn’t exactly bring much to the table but him being passable is enough, letting Billy Ray’s rather blunt screenplay do the rest. The same cannot be said of Olivia Wilde, playing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, who helped break the story that Jewell was under investigation.
The screenplay doesn’t do Wilde any favors. In her first scene, we see Scruggs profanely boasting to a group of other female reporters about nabbing salacious front-page scoops. Immediately after the bombing, she prays out load that the terrorist will turn out be someone interesting. At one point she even breaks into Bryant’s car to hopefully get some type of scoop from him. In another particularly ludicrous sequence, it’s heavily implied that she sleeps with Shaw to get a story, which has no basis in reported fact, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution even speaking out against the scene. And making everything worse, Scruggs passed away in 2001, making her completely unable to defend herself. Given that so much of Eastwood’s approach to biopics amount to careful shorthand, this material comes off as nonsensical and upsets the film’s tonal balance. The entirety of the parts of the film that deal with Scruggs and her colleagues at the Journal-Constitution are awkwardly deployed and often laughable; a scene where Bryant comes to the newspaper office to berate Scruggs in person even plays like a stale Aaron Sorkin. While at the same time, Wilde’s depiction of Scruggs is so demonic and laughably cartoonish that I half-expected the character’s final scene to show her growing horns and walking through the gates of hell maniacally laughing.
Many Eastwood movies thrive on a good antagonist — he’s brought incredible portrayals of malice to the screen, from the villain of his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, to Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning turn in Unforgiven — but it’s not something Richard Jewell really needs. The film fails when it leans into its simplistic impulses, painting Jewell as a noble saint and the FBI and media as knitted together in a conspiracy out to get him. Richard Jewell for the most part avoids fully falling into those pitfalls, instead grappling with the limits of its protagonist. To Eastwood, Jewell is a hero not just because he saved people’s lives, but also because he was an ordinary and imperfect man who rose to the occasion when the moment demanded it. That’s the story Richard Jewell should be telling, and when it fully sticks to that path it succeeds. While Richard Jewell has its problematic elements, it ultimately works because of Paul Walter Hauser’s striking performance as a flawed man who rose to the occasion when it was needed most.