Richard Jewell, the lead character in filmmaker Clint Eastwood’s new drama of the same name, is a slow-talking, bad-body, junk-food-craving, southern-drawling, sheepish prole. The kind of guy automatically dismissed by most urbanites. Everything about him spells “loser.” As portrayed in a remarkable performance by actor Paul Walter Hauser, low-level Georgia security guard and “wannabe cop” Jewell gets absolutely no respect — not even after his alertness and sense of duty saves numerous lives when a terrorist nail bomb explodes at an outdoor event for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The Atlanta Olympics bombing is a matter of historical record, as is Jewell’s ordeal of being singled out for public vilification in the search for the culprit, so we won’t worry too much about plot spoilers in discussing Richard Jewell. It’s one of the most provocative movies of this provocative year at the movies — and the tensest, most real-life-relevant Eastwood production since Gran Torino.
Eastwood himself is a hot button, as an actor but especially for the projects his Malpaso Productions have taken on. Anyone whose acting filmography corrals the Man with No Name, Dirty Harry, William Munny, John McBurney, and the tag-team partner of Clyde the orangutan into the same bag together is worth arguing about. But Eastwood’s well-known political conservatism clouds the discussion even further. How in the world can we reconcile Unforgiven, the two masterful Iwo Jima pics (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby with the likes of The Bridges of Madison County and The 15:17 to Paris?
First and foremost, Eastwood’s body of work consistently examines the lives and times of ordinary working people faced with extraordinary challenges. Hauser’s Richard Jewell is such a character. He lives at home with his mother (Kathy Bates, never better), drifts from one uniformed gofer job to another, collects firearms (of course), practices his marksmanship in video game arcades, and eventually draws the attention of a lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, also superb), who at first mocks this fat, seemingly dumb hick, but thinks enough of Richard to offer advice about how to conduct himself in the rent-a-cop business: “Don’t become an asshole.”
Jewell goes ahead and does occasionally behave like an asshole, naturally, waddling around in his Deputy Dawg outfit and sucking up to real police officers on that fateful day at Centennial Park. But something about that backpack someone left under a bench looks wrong to him. Trouble is, he’s such a boob that nobody takes his warnings seriously.
Other people are present at the deadly blast site. A bored FBI agent named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) initially blames himself for not stopping the attack, but gets over it. Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), an overly ambitious, sensation-seeking Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter that Special Agent Shaw happens to be personally interested in, picks up on something that Shaw idly drops in flirtatious conversation over cocktails. Shaw suspects that the tubby security guard now being hailed as a hero is actually the one who planted the IED. Scruggs is ready to believe that without further checking, and convinces her editor to run the story on page one. Jewell’s life quickly unravels from there.
The ironies in the persecution of Richard Jewell are endless. As drawn by Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray — based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner and a book by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen — Jewell’s lifestyle and his law-and-order values (“I was raised to respect authority”) dovetail conveniently with the general profile of such homegrown terrorists as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Evidently both terrorists and police officers exhibit similar personality traits and experience — “bad past,” military service, large weapon collections, fear and distrust of liberal politics, etc.
To loosey-goosey G-man Shaw, Jewell is an easy scapegoat, a lone nut who lives with his mother in a house full of guns. NBC’s Tom Brokaw and the New York Post buy into it too, adding to the Jewell family’s misery and the siege of their home on zero evidence. Food for thought from a filmmaker often derided as a rightwing cheerleader, but more accurately a champion of outsiders and underdogs.