Clint Eastwood, pushing 90 adds a new addition to his gallery of unexpected American heroes, — think American Sniper, Sully, and, to a lesser extent, The 15:17 to Paris — courtesy of this tale of Richard Jewell, a do-gooder who was first celebrated and then unjustly vilified by the FBI and the media. In the title role once intended for Jonah Hill, Paul Walter Hauser — in a breakout performance — plays Jewell as thickset, thickheaded, and overzealous about law enforcement. In 1996, after being fired from the campus police unit at Georgia’s Piedmont College, he took a gig as a security guard for the AT&T Pavilion at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. A wannabe cop to his bones, Jewell is eager to prove his worth to his PD idols.
And on the night of July 27th, he does just that. During a concert at Centennial Park, he alerts the police to a suspicious backpack that contained three pipe bombs. His quick thinking and brave efforts to evacuate the crowd saved lives before the bomb exploded, killing one person and injuring more than 100 others. Eastwood infuses this sequence with nailbiting tension and unalloyed respect for Jewell’s actions under pressure.
Suddenly, this thirtysomething misfit who lives with his loyal mom Bobi (a terrific Kathy Bates, just named the year’s Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review) is hailed as a conquering hero by the press and the public. His 15 minutes of fame actually stretches to three days. After that, word leaks out that the FBI, repped by agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), is sniffing around Jewell’s apartment and gun collection. Worse, he’s pegging the security guard as the prime suspect, fitting the bureau’s profile for the kind of fake hero who’d stage the whole bomb thing for a shot at the spotlight and a maybe job as a real cop.
Just how did word leak out? From an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by reporter Kathy Scruggs (a scrappy Olivia Wilde), who, according to Eastwood’s movie, sleeps with the FBI guy to get the scoop. Sources close to the reporter, who died at 42 in 2001, strongly claim that she never traded sex for a story; her former employer is demanding a disclaimer be added regarding what they consider to be character assassination. Indeed, the attempt to slut-shame a reporter who’s not around to defend herself stands as a black mark in a film that otherwise hews close to the proven facts of the case. The FBI did investigate Jewell. The feds and the press did hound him repeatedly (even Richard and Bobi’s beloved Tom Brokaw of NBC pointed fingers, for which the network was later sued). In a script that Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) adapted from the Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” by Marie Brenner, Eastwood gives them hell for it.
All praise to Hauser, best known for adding dimension to the white-trash scuzzballs he played in I, Tonya and BlackKklansman, for seizing the potential of his first starring role and running with it. His ornery take on Jewell is miles from a martyr act. Instead, his performance offers a portrait of a flawed man who learns to confront his worst impulses and take steps to move past them. By the time Bobi makes a televised plea to President Clinton on behalf of her son — Bates nails the moment — Hauser has already shown us in detail the vulnerable human being she describes.
Cheers, too, for the tangy bite Sam Rockwell brings to Jewell’s Libertarian attorney Watson Bryant, a rebel whose methods rile the status quo and sometimes his own client. Jewell is often his own worst enemy, complying with the demands of his adored cops even when it’ll hurt his case. “They’re looking to eat you alive,” says Bryant, who asks Jewell if he’s ready to fight back. The look of disgust on Hauser’s face as Richard musters the strength to go to war for himself is indelibly moving, as is the moment in 2003 when the cops bring in the real bomber. What a shame that Jewell, who died of heart failure in 2007, didn’t live to see the film Eastwood has made of his life. It would have made his day.