You ready to start fighting back?” Sam Rockwell asks the title character that question deep into “Richard Jewell.”
The Clint Eastwood film recalls how the FBI and media aligned to punish a security guard who saved lives at the 1996 Summer Olympics. Only the film feels like Eastwood is channeling a certain Commander in Chief.
Conservatives have spent the last three years fighting against a culture calling them racist, sexist, homophobic and more. They’ve been maligned for wanting to keep the borders secure and jobs from fleeing overseas. Reporters and celebrities alike led the charge against Red State America, forgoing the truth for progressive narratives.
It’s well past time for a Hollywood movie to take their side. Only a rebel like Eastwood could fight back in Oscar-worthy fashion.
“I, Tonya” standout Paul Walter Hauser is Richard Jewell, a portly soul who pines to protect and serve. He’s stuck “serving” as a security guard at a university, a task he takes far too seriously, according to one supervisor.
Richard ends up on the Summer Olympics security force, getting paid to hear Kenny Rogers serenade the crowd. One fateful night he spots a duffel bag left under a bench. His crude Spidey Senses tingle, and he alerts his fellow guards about its potential danger.
We know what happened next. Eastwood knows what we know, and he masterfully conducts the bombing with that in mind.
The press initially dubs Richard a hero, and he’s curious about the trappings of instant fame. That doesn’t last long.
The FBI, personified by a smug Jon Hamm, think Jewell planted the bomb himself to fulfill his hero fantasies. Hamm’s character shares that “tip” with journalist Kathy Scruggs (an occasionally over the top Olivia Wilde), and suddenly Richard’s insta-fame turns into a 20th century nightmare.
Richard was an overweight white male who owned guns and had no girlfriend or wife. Or, as Kathy puts it, “He’s a fat f*** who lives with his mom. How did we miss that?”
Our culture abhors racial profiling, unless the suspect ticks off those boxes, and then it’s game on. Richard found that out the hard way.
“Richard Jewell” plays out like a conservative’s dream assault on our corrupt media. The film weaponizes press clippings and news bytes from the era to state its case. Under Eastwood’s direction, “Real” news becomes an indictment of 21st century Fake News.
It’s impossible to read it any other way.
“Why did Tom Brokaw say that about you?” a marvelous Kathy Bates, playing Richard’s Ma, asks after the anchor convicts Richard on live TV. Never mind that the FBI had no true evidence against him save that damning “profile.”
Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) conspire to drag the press two decades before the institution disgraced itself on a weekly basis. The FBI prove equally inept here, rushing to judgment while tearing an innocent man’s life down in the process.
Hamm corrals his character’s ego, to some extent, channeling his outrage over a bombing happening on his “watch.” Wilde isn’t as fortunate.
Eastwood’s populist bent gets the better of him now and again. He fights against that instinct here, but he fails in two small scenes involving Wilde’s reporter.
It’s still telling when Kathy “prays” to be the one to find the bomber and that he turns out to be “f***ing interesting.” Praying for the victims isn’t high on her priority list.
Hauser’s Richard remains terminally clueless about the odds stacked against him, often siding with the forces out to take him down. The actor plays that balancing act without a hint of artifice. He’s a simple man, a decent soul who loves his Mamma and ain’t afraid of hard work.
Bring it, he says.
It’s why he stayed at his post the night of the bombing despite serious intestinal distress. You’re given a job. Do it, and do it well. It’s a quiet message that reverberates through the movie.
Once again, Eastwood knows his audience.
Compare that to Hamm and Wilde’s characters. Both toil in respected positions yet each is eager for something greater. More fame. More power.
Ray’s exceptional screenplay suggests Kathy slept with Hamm’s agent to snare information on Richard. Early media reports say that’s false, and Scruggs is no longer here to defend herself.
If “Richard Jewell” got that fact wrong, it’s both unfair and avoidable. Wilde could have played a composite character representing journalistic malpractice.
Hollywood remains liberal to the core, but flickers of Red State awareness can’t be contained. Ray’s script offers a prime example.
At one point Richard wonders why being a legal gun owner makes him suspect. The Second Amendment has his back, right? “Is the NRA a fringe group?” Richard asks.
In other sequence, Watson’s assistant Nadya (Nina Arianda), in a thick Russian accent, weighs in on the case against Richard.
“Where I’m from, when government says you’re guilty, you’re innocent.”
The line, like so many here, packs more than one intention.
Jewell is no sanitized hero. He’s a Momma’s boy who doesn’t know when to shut his big yap. He’s got a curious background, from trying too hard as a college security guard to other dubious achievements.
It’s a growing headache for his attorney, played by recent Oscar winner Rockwell. He might just snare a second statuette for his performance. Rockwell’s Watson got to know Richard a decade prior to the bombing. Something about the sheepish giant, who he dubbed “Radar,” stuck with him.
Their bond offers some curious comic relief, the kind that flows from character without demeaning either party.
“Richard Jewell” packs a bevy of grace notes, like Bates’ mother trying to remove permanent marker off of her Tupperware. The FBI took it from her, labeling it as potential evidence.
It won’t rub off, a perfect metaphor for what the FBI did to her boy. He died in 2007 of diabetes-related heart failure. He was 44.
Early on Jewell shares his sweet but naive take about his beloved United States: “I believe in law and order…you can’t have a country without it.”
It took a movie by an 89-year-old auteur to remind us of that simple, elegant truth.
HiT or Miss: “Richard Jewell” is a testament to a wronged man, a cry against government overreach and an upper cut on Fake News’ jaw. It’s also one of the year’s best films.