“Richard Jewell” is Eastwood’s best since “Gran Torino,” though that’s not too high of a bar to reach for. I actually might like “Jewell” more than “Torino,” in which case it’s his best since “Million Dollar Baby.” Eastwood is known as a director for his one or two take shooting style, meaning he doesn’t dwell on scenes for too long. It can be seen as a positive in that his shooting schedule is fairly short and efficient, but it also doesn’t allow the actors any room to try different interpretations of their characters in different takes. Such monotony can be felt in many of Eastwood’s films, and in the last decade he’s strung together a lifeless line of dull and visually unimpressive projects. While he doesn’t seem to cut corners with his actors, he does in the editing and cinematography departments. “Richard Jewell” seems to reverse this trend, offering a brighter color palette, a more witty script, and some of the best performances of the year.
“Richard Jewell” is about – what else – Richard Jewell, a man who did heroic service at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, only to face accusations of planting the bomb himself. When we’re introduced to Jewell, he’s about the most innocent, hardest working man you’ve ever met. The poor guy could be conned for everything he has. He may not be the most intelligent man, but he has conviction and determination. He’s aspired to be in law enforcement his whole life, but at first we see him working as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm. He’s the best secretary you’ve never had – stocking the attorneys’ drawers with fresh materials and personal snacks like Snickers for Watson Bryant, played by Sam Rockwell. He leaves the firm to be a security guard at a private college, where he takes his job far too seriously. He’s fired for multiple complaints of acting beyond his jurisdiction. He moves in with his mother, and takes on a job as a security agent at the Olympic Games. The rest is history.
Paul Walter Hauser gives one of the best performances of 2019 as the titular character. He makes it so easy to root for Jewell, even though we know that Richard is his own worst enemy. Sam Rockwell turns in a seamless performance as Jewell’s lawyer, Watson Bryant. Yes, that’s right, the attorney that Jewell befriended in his old position winds up being his personal lawyer. Bryant is basically the opposite of Jewell – he has tenacity and remains cynical about the motivations of the FBI, while Richard (after being told not to talk) willingly cooperates and talks with the FBI at every chance he gets. The two agents assigned to him go so far as to make a voice recording of Jewell stating the same line that the real bomber said on the phone before the explosion. Jon Hamm plays a fittingly smug FBI agent, though he does come off as a bit of a caricature.
The same could be said for Olivia Wilde as Kathy Scruggs, the reporter for the “Atlanta Journal Constitution” who published the article that leaked that Jewell was being investigated by the FBI. She has aggressive and cliché methods of attaining information, which may or may not have been accurately portrayed. Her demeanor is salty and vindictive, and she doesn’t seem to care whether she gets the facts right or wrong. Being first is what’s important. Are there members of the media that are truly this ignorant and careless? Perhaps, but regardless, the caricature-like roles of the antagonists in “Richard Jewell” play to great effect. Would I have liked more well-rounded characters across the board? Yes, but I’ve also met G-men in my life that couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about the people they serve. I’ve heard plenty of stories from people involved in media production about the corruption that goes on behind-the-scenes in newsrooms. Certainly they’re not all like this, but I didn’t take offense to the way that the FBI agents or some members of the media were portrayed in “Richard Jewell.” Other audience members might.
This is obviously a story that Eastwood is very passionate about. He depicts the story in a manner that’s indignant yet not too self-aware. It doesn’t feel outright political. The contempt for which Jewell was both portrayed and treated was disgusting, and there are genuine moments that may bring you close to tears involving Jewell and his mother. In today’s society where guilt seems to sometimes come before innocence, “Richard Jewell” feels like a very timely film, despite being based on occurrences from 20-plus years ago. It deserves to be seen and should have done better at the box office. Perhaps with a better marketing campaign and a cooler title, it could have.