A movie review about somebody falsely accused of terrorism.
In 1996 a bomb exploded in Atlanta at a concert held as part of celebrations for the Olympics happening there. In the initial aftermath one of the security guards, Richard Jewell was heralded as a hero for his role in alerting people to the bag that contained it. This soon changed to suspicion that he was the bomber.
The eponymous film Richard Jewell (2019) shows how this transformation happened. The answer as presented, is a perfect storm of personalities. An unscrupulous journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) decides that Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is ‘the type’ and decides to type herself into fame by telling the public he is suspected by the FBI. This of course was essentially pre-internet saturation, when print journalism still carried massive authority as a source of news dissemination. Added to this, is an over-zealous FBI agent (John Hamm) who pulls a number of heavy handed moves to get Richard to confess. Coming a year after the Oaklahoma Bombing, which killed nearly 170 people and was caused by two white supremacists, he also decided early that Richard was ‘the type’. Finally and most interestingly, Richard Jewell himself is shown as doing himself no favours in his reactions to the situation and acts in every way that makes him seem ‘the type’. He is a plain looking, obese, single white male, with limited social skills, living with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), is adept at using guns and very much a law enforcement manque who wants to do nothing more than naively ‘help’ the FBI in the investigation. He insists on doing that, against the advice of his naturally more worldly lawyer G Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).
The acting in the movie is well done. Though nobody is showy in the slightest, the standout performances belong to Hauser and Rockwell. The former manages to tread a fine line by eliciting sympathy for Jewell as a victim, but not one based on a completely pathetic portrayal. Yes, there are times when he seems jaw-droppingly trusting, but others when he over turns any suggestion he’s an idiot. For example, when the lawyer asks if he has any guns in the house and Richard looks at him as if to say “duh” and replies “This is Georgia!”. He then retrieves a considerable cache of weapons from around the house. The two of them play well off each other and Kathy Bates also provides solid, understated support. One contributing factor in the casting is that the villains of the piece are two of the conventionally most attractive looking actors working. It works well in contrast to the plain Jewell and is a refreshing change from the ‘bad guys are ugly’ trope that has been prevalent across genres since at least the silent movie era.
The movie is directed by the octogenarian Clint Eastwood, who has garnered a number of awards over the years in that capacity. His style is self-effacing and economical and put to good effect in this movie. Its an approach that gets out the way and allows the actors to do their work. This is no doubt influenced by his own primary career as an actor himself. Apparently he eschews the classic shouting of “action” on set and tends to whisper something to the actors indicting they start a scene. The camera is in fact almost too conservatively used. He possibly could have indulged himself in a couple of scenes with a special shot or two, just to lift it safely beyond tele-drama-issue-of-the-week territory.
This movie was considered a commercial flop when it came out, but who cares? In its own small way it serves as a warning about media bias and governmental overreach. In the age of Covid, Richard Jewell has a message that deserves a wider hearing and should resonate with many who watch it.