Paul Walter Hauser is note-perfect as security guard turned national hero turned national villain in Clint Eastwood’s latest portrayal of a pure American-made man.
What more could the world need right now than a film that takes a look at a white man falling victim to media scrutiny? What more could the world need than sympathy for an all-American Southerner accused of doing something he didn’t do? It’s easy to feel like Eastwood is trying to make a point here; that he’s kicking back against the guilty-until-proven-innocent world that defensive white men feel #MeToo has created.
During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, aspiring law-enforcement officer Richard Jewell takes a job as a security guard stationed at the Centennial Olympic Park. The hefty, authority-respecting Jewell bundles his way around the park, using his considerable stature to robustly enforce his presence as “law-enforcement”. This posing as some figure of the law is a topic of much amusement to cops and other security staff who see Jewell as doing more than his job’s worth. We’ve all worked with a Jewell before. A man who works by the book, no shortcuts, with delusions of the importance of his role.
Where Richard Jewell becomes a unique case though, is in the importance of his busy-bodied self-seriousness and how instead of being empty, authority brown-nosing, his actions on the night of July 27, 1996, saved hundreds of lives. After discovering an unattended backpack, Jewell alerts security and police, stressing repeatedly that it’s a “suspicious package”, something shrugged off by the unconcerned police. When it transpires that the backpack is host to a set of pipe bombs Jewell jumps back into action, red-faced and battling on through having a case of the runs and continues to do what he thinks is expected of him.
The Atlanta Olympics bombings caused two deaths and over a hundred casualties that night, but Richard Jewell’s actions prevented many more. Following initial adoration from the media, FBI officer Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) later leaks to Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) that Jewell fits the profile of the “hero bomber”, thus making him the prime suspect in their case. When Scruggs—portrayed here as a blood-thirsty gossip journalist—publishes the story, it unleashes a world of hell on Jewell and his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates).
Once the FBI latches onto Jewell it starts looking into every seemingly unnecessary corner of his life. The media portrayal becomes harsher, doubling down on the villain angle, something that seems to be working well for them. Jewell teams up with lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to help him in his predicament. Bryant’s job feels impossible as Jewell’s unwavering respect for the law blinds him to the unfair treatment they’re applying to the case and his personal life, making Bobi look as though she’s moments away from phoning Queer Eye‘s fab five for their greatest challenge yet.
Jewell is a sorry case. He’s the truest encapsulation of the American hero: a man who loves his country but is too blinded by abstract respect to ever question it. Is he a hero for the government, for the media, for the American people? No. He’s a hero to himself, fulfilling his dreams of being seen, being subjected to misery and coming out the other side. You may take a look at Eastwood’s angle on this tale of a good man being taken for a ride by the media and say there’s a cynical anti-witchhunt approach being taken. I find a certain timeliness in a story that’s taken a look at a rather untimely subject and managed to extract something heartfelt and triumphant from an unwitting buffoon like Richard Jewell.
I was on the precipice of tears for the majority of the film, watching this caring numbskull being submitted to the beating of his life by the very nation and values he’s adhered to his whole life. Richard Jewell isn’t a story of good or bad, right or wrong, hero or villain—it’s a story about a man realising that it’s not worth being a hero.
Richard Jewell is showing in select cinemas around the country now.
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Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.