2019, R, 131 min. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez, Niko Nicotera, Mike Pniewski.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 13, 2019
Clint Eastwood has authority issues. As squinting cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan, he brandished a .44 Magnum to dispense vigilante justice in defiance of a legal system that protected the criminal’s rights over the rights of the victim. Behind the camera, Eastwood’s distrust of “The Man” began to thematically take shape with the 1992 anti-Western Unforgiven, in which a reformed outlaw and killer is the honorable protagonist and a sadistic sheriff hiding behind his badge is its black-hatted villain. Since then, he has rebuked the abusers of institutional power in films such as Absolute Power, Changeling, and J. Edgar, and now Richard Jewell, which depicts the FBI and Fourth Estate as conspiring to accuse the titular security guard of planting the knapsack that contained the three pipe bombs that killed one person directly, and injured dozens, in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics. In his latest reprimand calling out institutional misconduct, a pre-9/11 poster appears in the background in several shots, its message expressing a libertarian credo that’s undiluted Eastwood: “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” It’s as subtle as the proverbial brick through the window.
The perplexing mix of ham-handed righteousness and exaggerated vilification in Billy Ray’s screenplay takes no time in separating the good guys from the bad guys. On one hand, there’s the man-child Jewell (Hauser), a buffoonish but genuinely motivated Southern boy who aspires to become a law enforcement officer, and his sweetly protective mother (Bates). Their lives are turned upside down when an Atlanta newspaper reports that the feds are investigating Jewell as a possible suspect, just days after he’s proclaimed a hero for alerting police officers about the suspicious knapsack, resulting in an evacuation that saved countless lives. On the other hand, there’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (a WTF Wilde), the soulless journalist who unblinkingly beds a source to get the scoop on the FBI’s scrutiny of Jewell and then runs with the false-hero narrative to advance her professional status. (Not surprisingly, the newspaper has filed a lawsuit against Warner Brothers and Eastwood.) Her pillow-talk informer is the unequally soulless federal agent Tom Shaw (Hamm, clenching his jaw so tightly it may pop), who instantly pegs Jewell as the terrorist based on a lone-bomber profile and then latches on to circumstantial tidbits to bootstrap his ill-founded suspicions, largely out of disgust for the good ol’ boy. As portrayed here, they’re a one-dimensionally despicable pair that near ruin the legitimacy of this cautionary tale.
There are saving graces in Richard Jewell, particularly in the performances of the wronged characters and their allies. The mother everyone would love to have, Bates is particularly powerful in a scene in which she tearfully beseeches a room of journalists to help clear her son’s name (Jewell was never charged with any crime). Rockwell’s sardonic attorney, who stands by his disparaged client amidst a media shitstorm, provides a much-needed lightness, the tenacity of the character’s commitment to Jewell a hopeful glimpse of human compassion.
But it’s Hauser who keeps the movie from tilting over, even though Eastwood and Ray initially seem to patronize the character. The knuckleheaded scene-stealer from I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman has the chance here to play a fuller, more rounded character for a change, and he’s unexpectedly up to the task. The performance is an eye-opener. With a little refinement and polish, we may have found our long-awaited Ignatius J. Reilly.