With the benefit of hindsight, historically important events are re-evaluated. Once the circumstances of history become clear, films are made depicting what happened. It’s okay for a filmmaker to take creative licence because it’s impossible to get the details 100% correct. It’s important to keep certain details accurate so the correct message can be conveyed, since many people learn their basic history from films. Changing thematic or character centred details can give people the wrong idea about noteworthy events. Jim Morrison didn’t try to burn Pamela Courson alive like depicted in The Doors (1991) and P. T. Barnum wasn’t a champion of the disenfranchised like depicted in The Greatest Showman (2017). These portrayals do serious harm to our cultural memory and in turn negates a film’s other merits, as is the case Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell (2019).
During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta Georgia, security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) discovered a bomb planted in Centennial Olympic Park. Calmly yet firmly, Richard enacted the immediate evacuation of the surrounding area, dramatically minimising the damage and casualties. Richard is immediately named a hero by the media, which draws the attention of FBI Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). They look closely at Richard, determining that he fits the profile of a loner planting explosives for attention. There’s no other suspects, causing Richard’s public profile to go from America’s working class hero to public enemy number one. The media harassment makes life hard for Richard and his mother Bobi Jewell (Kathy Bates), resulting in Richard hiring lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to defend him.
Clint Eastwood has been a staple of the film industry for decades, both as director and actor. It’s almost expected for an Eastwood drama to drop once a year. In recent years, many of his directorial efforts share thematic similarities, specifically about middle-class working men known for heroic acts of bravery which were followed by negative attention. Regardless of personal perspectives, Richard Jewell is primed for this kind of narrative. Eastwood’s similar films like American Sniper (2014) or Sully (2016) needed a bit of historical revisionism to be interpreted this way. Granted, not every aspect of Richard Jewell is accurate, but the thematic purpose of the story is unmistakably a working-class hero narrative. The key to making it work is Richard Jewell himself.
Paul Walter Hauser has been showing up in high profile supporting roles for a few years, doing great work in films like I, Tonya (2017) and Blackkklansman (2018). He has held his own against heavy hitters like Adam Driver and Margot Robbie, so it was just a matter of time before he stepped into a leading role. He doesn’t disappoint, successfully portraying a genuine, altruistic and committed man who will do the right thing, despite his off-putting social awkwardness. Hauser is a true talent with a bright future. Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates are also on hand to share the dramatic load, both performers doing dependably good work. Rockwell excels as a smarmy, likeable and supportive lawyer and Bates does fine work as Jewell’s ever-loving mother.
Sadly, not all of the performances are quite up to scratch, as John Hamm and Olivia Wilde are underserved as FBI Agent Tom Shaw and journalist Kathy Scruggs. There’s nothing wrong with their work per se, but they are given little to work with. Tom Shaw is a fictionalised version of many FBI agents on the Richard Jewell case. Creating a composite character isn’t a bad idea as it clarifies things for the screen, but it doesn’t work here since his actions and motivations don’t feel concrete. He feels incredibly vague and isn’t a completely three-dimensional character. Olivia Wilde’s work as Kathy Scruggs is also let down by the script, as she isn’t given much outside of being an ambitious and heartless journalist stereotype.
The root of the film’s flaws stem from the thematic depictions of its characters, fictional or otherwise. In Kathy Scruggs case, her portrayal is so stereotypical that it boarders on cartoony. Not only does her place in the story awkwardly stand out, but it does serious damage to the reputation of the real Kathy Scruggs. Sure, Eastwood is using her as a vehicle to discuss faults of the media, however it’s somewhat insulting to place blame entirely on someone who in reality didn’t do anything she’s depicted doing. Eastwood does have other (more appropriate) themes to chew on, centring entirely around Jewell’s heroism and optimism in the face of being persecuted. Even though this is the driving force of the narrative, important perspectives are ignored which leaves thing feeling thin.
When the thematic and narrative intentions don’t fully come together, it’s usually down to the visuals and craftsmanship to pick up the slack. Just like most other elements of the film, the visual storytelling is also well intentioned yet half-cooked. In recent years, Eastwood has had a specific style which he’s admirably stayed committed to. Just like his previous work, Richard Jewell is heavily desaturated and framed with simple mid-shots and wides. Entire scenes unfold without any hint of music or cinematic flair, attempting to feel down to earth. It makes the character driven sequences feel little dull, but it works wonders for sequences which would traditionally be action heavy. In most films, a bomb discovery sequence is obnoxiously over-the-top, whereas Eastwood’s silent approach adds realistic tension.
When adapting historical events, it’s not easy to stay objective. A filmmaker usually has a perspective on the issue and wants to get their point across. Eastwood clearly has a lot of respect for what Richard Jewell did and it’s admirable that he wants to remind the world of this story. However, important details are missed and important people are defamed, which may invalidate the film’s well-intentioned point.
Best way to watch it: To start an argument with your politically minded friend.