In a very short amount of time, director Clint Eastwood’s new film, Richard Jewell, has gone from being one of the year’s eagerly anticipated adult dramas to the most controversial film of 2019. To get right to the point, the controversy is merited, as the film is imperfect in some ways – but don’t let the war of words keep you from seeing it. Eastwood’s filmmaking instincts remain smart and skillful, and he’s aided by two fantastic performances from newcomer Paul Walter Hauser and Sam Rockwell.
I, Tonya scene stealer Hauser stars as Jewell, the security guard whose heroic act saved lives during the bombing at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia. Jewell is declared a hero by the press, who quickly alter the narrative and accuse Jewell of being the man responsible for the attack. Misled by a false tip provided by an Atlanta newspaper, invasive reporters and federal agents bent on salvaging their careers hound Jewell relentlessly.
I liked Eastwood’s prior film, the surprise hit The Mule, even though it was full of stereotypes and generalizations about generational gaps. His latest is much stronger and, in its entire first act, demonstrates what a great storyteller and no-nonsense filmmaker still Eastwood is.
Most of the controversy comes from the depiction of Kathy Scruggs, the late reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, played here by Olivia Wilde. The film suggests that Scruggs traded sex for information on the Jewell story (those who knew her state this is absolute fiction). In light of how the movie portrays her, this offscreen event is the least offensive thing about the characterization. Wilde’s over-the-top, lip-smacking performance is as obnoxious as the film’s take on Scruggs is hateful. Richard Jewell isn’t misogynist: Kathy Bates’ moving, lived-in turn as Jewell’s mother is a nice contrast to Wilde’s overboard turn (which seems closer to Kristen Wiig in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than a real person).
Look, it’s a movie and not a documentary. Artistic license and creative liberties are a commonality for every movie “Based on a True Story.” Whether a movie is portraying Scruggs or Bruce Lee, the filmmaker can shape these figures however they like, because they’re characters in a movie. Still, if screenwriter Billy Ray intended this as a character assassination of Scruggs (which is what it feels like), it’s been done with too heavy a hand. Considering how good Jon Hamm is here, embodying a truly despicable FBI agent who uses Jewell, Wilde’s very-broad villainy seems superfluous. Had her character been cut out of the film altogether, it would have resulted in a much stronger work. Wilde’s performance is a cringe-worthy misstep, but it doesn’t ruin the film.
Some fear the film is Eastwood’s ode to our commander in chief’s use of the term “fake news.” It isn’t, though Eastwood does manage to get a dig in at President Clinton. Otherwise, politics take a back seat to the depiction of how the media courts, then clobbers Jewell in a whiplash fashion.
Like the recent A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Eastwood’s film wisely doesn’t turn its central figure into a symbol or try to present him in a false, Hollywood-ized light. Jewell is portrayed as awkward, sometimes abrasive, and maintaining the eager-to-please naivete of a child. Hauser’s tremendous, deeply felt performance is a heartbreaker. Coming off a great supporting turn in Jojo Rabbit, Rockwell gives one of his best performances as Jewell’s lawyer, only friend, and most valuable ally.
Eastwood is among my favorite filmmakers but I’m not letting him off the hook for the misguided touches here. It’s frustrating, as Richard Jewell comes this-close to being a masterpiece. As is, there are unfortunate notes here that hurt the film, but don’t diminish what makes this special. When Hauser and Rockwell take center, this is a spellbinder and has some of Eastwood’s best direction to date. The sequence of the bombing is gripping, even though it comes after staging a massive outdoor dance to the “Macarena” (thank you, Clint, for reminding us this takes place in the ‘90s). As an exploration of what defines a hero, this isn’t a milestone like Eastwood’s American Sniper but it’s better than both Sully and (arguably his lousiest film) The 15:17 to Paris. There are some false notes but the painful truth on display is what makes this a searing work.
Three and a Half Stars
Rated R/131 Min.