Fascinating and infuriating in equal measure, Eastwood’s film pushes the director’s late preoccupation with everyday heroes into new territory

Patrick Preziosi on Clint Eastwood’s ‘Richard Jewell’ (2019)

As if to already lay bare the film’s main concern, Clint Eastwood has titled his second project of 2019 Richard Jewell. Nothing more specific relating to the bomb found in Centennial Park at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, nor anything to curry audience favour by acknowledging what Eastwood considers to be the smear campaign levied against the local security guard who was the one to discover the explosive. This is a movie anchored absolutely to Richard Jewell himself (and Paul Walter Hauser’s perfectly calibrated performance, so disappeared into the role is he that Eastwood can shift from archival footage to Hauser with ease), and although much of what transpires spins out from one isolated event in the man’s life, Eastwood attempts an intriguingly vague contextualisation to make his appeals of innocence the tiniest bit wobbly.

Richard, initially introduced as stock-boy at a law firm in 1986, is overtly ambitious if a bit deluded. He strikes up a friendship with attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) — who a decade later, will defend Richard when he becomes the FBI’s prime suspect in the Centennial Park bombing — and shares aspirations of becoming a police officer, and maybe even a secret service agent. All of this is delivered over a casual bout at an arcade shooting game; when complemented by Watson on his skill, Richard considers this to be the seedlings of becoming a law enforcement official. Instead, Richard becomes something of a drifting hothead, a campus police officer more concerned with busting coeds for drinking than he is keeping things safe; “No mickey-mousing on my campus, you said,” he says in defence of his actions to the dean. He’s promptly fired.

In 1996, Richard takes a low-level security job at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, hoping it’ll be noticed as a course correction to his questionable tactics as a law enforcement official (which includes impersonating a police officer and operating outside his jurisdiction). At the concerts held at Centennial Park, he operates with equal frustration (he occasionally considers the job to be beneath him), ingratiating behaviour (he sidles up to the actual police officers, offering them Cokes), and hardheaded determination (no rowdy kids on his watch!) Through a series of domino-like coincidences — or happy accidents, as some who are warier of Richard may consider them to be — Richard discovers three pipe bombs in a backpack under a bench.

It’s a sequence of ratcheted-up tension, especially striking in a film that’s only shown our protagonist undercutting himself prior. Richard falls back on his police training, calls in the bomb squad, evacuates the sound tower and clears scores of civilians before the inevitable explosion. Although it exists as an obvious dramatic, and even historical, fulcrum, the explosion is still a terrifying scene, especially as DP Yves Bélanger mirrors an earlier scene of attendees all doing the “Macarena” in unison following a Kenny Rogers performance with many of the same civilians coming to in the wake of the bomb the following night. The bizarre majesty of the former crane shot contrasts discomfortingly with the borderline massacre it captures soon thereafter. Richard’s subsequent being thrust into the national spotlight as a hero, followed by a swift unwriting of his own heroism like a needle touched to a balloon dovetails with the events of the bombing rather seamlessly, as his transcendent fulfilment gives way to the bottom falling out.

Richard becomes the FBI’s prime suspect (he fits the profile of the “lone bomber”), and once this is leaked to the press, his high-profile heroism quickly shifts to suspicion. Richard’s ever-spiralling ordeal is harrowing, especially when involving the duplicitous tactics that vampiric Agent Shaw (Jon Hamm) pulls on him. These range from trying to get Richard to sign official documents waiving his rights for an FBI “training video”, and even coaxing him into repeating the phrase the actual bomber relayed over the phone to the police while being recorded, which would undoubtedly implicate him. Richard’s own deep-seated respect for authority also provides ample head-smacking opportunities for him to appear “guilty as hell” (as Shaw puts it). Knowledge of pipe-bombs, possession of guns, eagerness to help with the evidence sweep, Richard’s own cosiness in these matters potentially suggests something other than innocence.

Shaw is also the one to leak the probe of Richard to the press in the first, and it’s at this particular interval of Richard Jewell that Eastwood’s intents become more precariously assembled. In an evocatively lit bar scene (the film’s clearest break from its unromanticised settings), Shaw lets it slip to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) that Richard is under suspicion after she’s explicitly offered sex in exchange for the tip. Eastwood goes to great lengths to present Hamm’s composited FBI agent as the true villain, as Wilde’s fiery and ruthless incarnation of Scruggs eventually softens to a realisation of wrongdoing that’s so tonally jarring (all it took was a dressing down by Watson with Richard in tow in the paper’s office?), it only exacerbates her caricature status. Essentially another pawn in the inept tunnel-vision of the FBI, the true to life linkage — which Hamm’s role sidesteps — of Scruggs still stings.

Eastwood is admirably trying to populate Richard’s orbit with figures who possess varying degrees of trust in the man. Watson is wary of Richard’s checkered past, and his tendency to unwittingly implicate himself, though he remains steadfast; Shaw maintains he’s guilty to the end; Bobbi Jewell (an impressively empathetic and frazzled Kathy Bates), stands with her son, but can’t help feel the mounting burden of the paparazzi, the government, and Richard’s own stubborn, simpering respect for authority which only complicates things further.

It, however, calls into question the necessity of such a wide-reaching tapestry, especially given the lived-in dynamics between Bates and Hauser, so attuned to cycling through respective bouts of frustration with and reliance on one another, that Hamm and Wilde, and even Rockwell, would fare better just on the film’s outer reaches. Eastwood’s casting flaunts a consummate intuition — look no further than the heartrending moment when Hauser weeps while eating a donut after his innocence is finally solidified — though perhaps not enough trust in the audience to deduce the terrifying ordeal that took place. As Richard’s life is upended by incessant media attention and FBI interference (quotidian evidence is returned to the Jewells with defacing permanent marker, an everlasting reminder of the investigation), the insertion of storybook-conventional villains as misguided means of narrative stitching stops an otherwise penetrating film in its tracks.

Richard Jewell opens in UK cinemas 31st January 2020.

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.