Review – Richard Jewell (2019)

By Kevin Muller

We are in a point in history where people are at odds with the news media. While some people swear by CNN/MSNBC, others think that FOX News are the ones who tell the truth. Even our own President has weighed in by creating a catchphrase to describe his feelings about the news organizations. Back in 1996, an event happened that threw a good man through the ringer, and even though he came out clean, it changed his life until his death in 2007. It was a story of a misunderstood hero who was wrongly accused by the press and FBI. Hollywood legend, Clint Eastwood, has decided to bring this story to the big screen.  Is it more like wonderful American Sniper or the mundane The 15:17 to Paris?

Paul Walter Hauser plays Richard Jewell. When the film opens, we are introduced to Jewell, who mild-mannered mail clerk at a law office.  An up and coming lawyer, Watson Bryant, played by the ever reliable Sam Rockwell, and Jewell have a nice work friendship. Jewell is incredibly good natured to the point of being ridiculous, and is a bit naive. In his mind, you must always do what is right, abide by the rules, and be protective of those who are in need. It is those beliefs that make him want to become a Police Officer. We all know have known someone who annoyingly sticks by the rules and takes his job too seriously, and that is Jewell. Though he means well, he doesn’t know when he is crossing the line.  This is all communicated when he gets canned from his job as campus security early in the film. Despite his shortcomings, his mother, Barbara, still encourages her son to pursue his dream. One night, while working security at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Ceremony, he finds a bag with pipe bombs inside. At first, the police officers, who are aware of his nature, question if this is just another one of his false alarms, but quickly see that this time it is serious. FBI agent Tom Shaw, who is also working the event, aides the police and Jewell with getting people out of there as quickly as possible. The bomb goes off, taking a few lives, but the amount of people Jewell saves launches him into the national spotlight. He humbly thanks the others, before himself, and his mother watches in pride, as her baby boy has his moment in the spotlight. This is where the film starts to take stride as the FBI needs a scapegoat, since they can’t find the suspect. They look at Jewell, who fits the loner bomber profile: single, in his 30’s, still lives with his mother, has been fired from his law enforcement jobs, is desperate for attention, and is a bit odd. Local journalist, Kathy Scruggs extracts this classified information from Shaw, in exchange for sexual favors.  Soon after, Jewell’s life does a complete 180 and he is now infamous.

Hauser, who has turned in some great supporting performances, most notably in 2017’s I, Tonya, brings this simple man to life. Jewell is a stickler for the rules and is submissive to anyone in law enforcement. He rarely gets angry, despite his life being slowly destroyed around him. Eastwood, who has wanted to bring this story to life for years, doesn’t paint Jewell as the perfect person. While he is heroic and good natured, Eastwood really brings out the oddities and strangeness of the man. He can be a bit annoying at times. As the story progresses, Hauser brings more humanity to the character and makes him have far more depth. The character is incredibly hard to play, but Hauser brings out the best and worst of Jewell. One of the better parts of Jewell is the relationship to his mother, played by Kathy Bates. A father figure is nowhere in sight, and we get the sense that it has been them two for a long time. Jewell is very protective of her. As the investigation proceeds, their relationship starts to become tested, as does her faith in her son. See, Jewell rolls over far too easily for anyone who is higher status than him out of respect. It is even more evidence that a male authority figure has been absent in their lives. Barbara starts to get frustrated with her son playing by the rules, which causes everyone else around him to constantly take advantage of him. This is where Watson comes in. He guides Jewell through the entire investigation, while being the father figure he never had, despite being around the same age. Even Barbara utters to her son, “you’ve got yourself a great lawyer here, Richard.” Sam Rockwell adds so much spark to Watson. Some of the most hilarious parts come from Jewell opening his mouth, when being told not to talk, to which Watson shoots him a disapproving look or smart ass comment.

Through much of this film, you will be shocked about how far Tom Shaw goes to place this crime on Jewell. Jon Hamm has two modes as an actor, the strong handsome alpha, which he used to play Don Draper on Mad Men, and the hilarious comedic actor who seems like someone who would get beaten up by the Draper persona. Obviously, here, he is the former. Shaw is a complete douchebag who preys on Jewell’s good nature. He is one of the opposing forces that Jewell must face in the film.

Where the film goes off the rails, and almost ruins the other well played parts, is its depiction of the character of Kathy Scruggs. Scruggs was the one who leaked the fact that Jewell was being investigated by the FBI and started this shit storm. Since the film’s release, Eastwood has come under fire with how Scruggs is portrayed. Critics have said that he is doing the exact thing to Scruggs, who passed over a decade ago, that she and the FBI did to Jewell. The family of Scruggs is rightfully upset that artistic liberties have been taken. That said, looking at it as a film critic, the performance and direction of the character is shockingly bad. Olivia Wilde’s performance is Razzie worthy and feels like it belongs in a parody film. It is so incredibly over the top to the point that I was expecting Wilde to grow a mustache and start to twiddle it. Eastwood, a known Libertarian and supporter of Trump, doesn’t have a high view of the press so he wanted to stick it to them in making this film. That is all fair, since the press did screw Jewell, but there is a difference with writing and directing a well-developed antagonist and another with something so blatantly obvious to your own personal feelings. That is the character of Scruggs in this film, and every time she is on screen, the film’s quality plummets.

Richard Jewell’s story reminds me of the quote from Alan Moore’s Watchmen that states about its superheroes “…the Watchmen watch us.  Who watches the Watchmen?” This can be both applied to the press and FBI in this film, and also Eastwood. His bias against the press, and handling of Scruggs, knocked down a project that should’ve been a home-run, but  despite their director’s choices, it is the cast, outside of Wilde, who save this one.

I am giving Richard Jewell a 3.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!

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