Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Clint Eastwood directed eight movies this past decade. An incredible feat on its own, but it is even more remarkable when you consider that the filmmaker is 89-years-old. His latest film is Richard Jewell, a biopic about the man who was temporarily a hero for discovering the Centennial Park bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, only to then be vilified as word got out that he was being considered as a suspect by the FBI. The mechanics of the film can be a little problematic, but it ultimately becomes an emotional gut punch in its final act and features award-worthy performances by Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser.
Hauser plays Jewell, a man with ambitions of becoming a police officer and who serves as a security guard at Centennial Park during the Olympics. When he spots a suspicious looking backpack hidden under a bench near the concert stage, he alerts the local cops and begins assisting with an evacuation of the area. The bomb explodes before they can complete the evacuation, injuring many and killing one (another later died of a heart attack), but Jewell’s assertiveness in alerting the authorities and moving people away from the explosion site probably saves lives. He is considered a hero, interviewed on television, and even offered a book deal. Then the other shoe drops.
The FBI begins looking into Jewell as they would always look into the person who found the bomb, but the more they look into him, the more they realize how well he fits their profile of the bomber. When the fact that they are looking into him is leaked to a reporter and becomes front page news, Jewell is vilified by a media desperate to find someone to answer for the act of terror. As the FBI escalates the investigation using some ethically questionable techniques, Jewell hires the only attorney he knows to represent him.
The backlash over how this movie treats the media is already well documented, especially the way it depicts Kathy Scruggs, the real-life reporter played in the film by Olivia Wilde. The movie irresponsibly depicts her offering to exchange sexual favors for a lead, despite there not being any evidence of this actually taking place. This feels like an unnecessary smearing of a woman who is not around to defend herself after passing away at only 41, due in large part to the health problems suffered during the extended lawsuit that arose after the events depicted in this film took place. The movie doesn’t even bother to change her name, despite giving that treatment to the FBI agents who are also depicted as unprincipled villains.
This is an unfortunate blemish on a movie that is otherwise quite compelling and effective. It starts slow with some awkward flashback scenes introducing the primary characters, but as soon as it reaches the recreation of the bombing (at the actual bombing location) and especially once the investigation is in full swing, the movie is hard to look away from. Richard Jewell does an excellent job of putting you into the shoes of the Jewell and so when he starts feeling the pressure of the FBI investigation, we start feeling it, too. The scenes in which the agents unashamedly try to trick Richard into confessing or signing away his Miranda rights are terrifying and rage-inducing. The FBI and the media do come off looking incredibly villainous in this movie, but this makes sense as the movie is told from Jewell’s perspective, and after being constantly attacked by them for months, he wouldn’t be able to think of them as anything else.
He tried, though. Jewell tells us that he was raised to respect authority, and because of this he is almost desperate to help the investigators with their case. This, of course, goes against the advice of his attorney, but Jewell can’t seem to help himself from being extra-cooperative.
Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant, is played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell, and one of the movie’s great delights is watching the actor react when Jewell can’t help himself from continuously offering the agents his expertise on what they might need for their investigation. Kathy Bates, too, is excellent in the film as Jewell’s mother, representing how the stress of the situation would stretch not just to Jewell, but his family as well. Bates also gets the movie’s biggest emotional speech towards the end of the film. It’s clear during this scene that the movie is manipulating us, but her performance is so great that it is thoroughly effective.
The revelation here, though, is Paul Walter Hauser. After a terrific supporting turn in 2017’s I, Tonya, Hauser earned his opportunity to take on this lead role and not just because he completely looks the part of Jewell, who is shown on television at one point for easy comparison. Hauser makes Jewell easy for the audience to root for, even when we are as exasperated as his lawyer by his inability to stay quiet and stop digging his own grave for a death that isn’t his. Hauser plays Jewell as a man whose only real crime is his desperate need to protect and serve and it is incredibly effective.
Eastwood’s films have been more miss than hit over the past decade, but Richard Jewell is one of the better ones. It certainly has its flaws, but to judge a movie solely on its worst aspect is to miss the overall picture.
Richard Jewell opens today at the AMC Kent Station 14, the AMC Southcenter 16, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Renton Landing.