Clint Eastwood is a filmmaker whose work I have had very mixed opinions of, though it should be noted I have some major gaps in his director’s filmography. I really didn’t like American Sniper (2014), but I loved Sully (2016), and I mostly hated The Mule (2018). Thus, I was very skeptical about going into Richard Jewell (2019) – but the film mostly worked for me, except for the portrayal of one of the characters.
The movie is based on the true story of Richard Jewel (Paul Walter Hauser) who was working security at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. During his shift, he notices a suspicious backpack left unattended, and follows exact protocol despite many objections from his colleagues. It turns out to be a bomb, and because of his actions, many lives are saved. However, his moment in the spotlight turns from praise to accusations, as he is vilified by the FBI and the media.
Hauser is definitely an actor who fits in a certain type of role, and Richard Jewel seems like the right casting for him. Hauser has been in I, Tonya (2017), BlacKkKlansman (2018), and Late Night (2019) and often has a similar dimwitted approach with his characters. Richard Jewel is painted to be a bit quirky and slightly off, while being genuinely kind and very driven by his perspective of what it means to protect and serve as a law enforcement officer. The film doesn’t seem to want to make him strictly a hero who was falsely accused of planting the bomb in order to receive said praise. It almost nudges the idea that the profile of the lone bomber totally makes sense with his character, but it just so happens that he was actually innocent. Hauser delivers the performance quite well, making you both empathize with the character – like Richard Jewel – but also understand why he was targeted so hard by the media and the FBI.
With that said, the portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is questionable at best. While I knew nothing about the reporter prior, it feels as though there is a clear disdain for the media. In fact, the scene where she convinces Federal Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) under an implied sexual favor for information seems to be a hotbed for debate online. In researching a bit about the reporter, I’ve learned that she died of a drug overdose in 2001 – a fact that feels as though it should be included in the end title cards of all based on true stories, but is omitted. I think this speaks volumes of Eastwood’s opinions of the media.
I’ve mentioned many times my allegiance to journalism, but that does not mean I think the press or media is perfect. I believe they’re far from it, in fact. However, I think journalism and the people who treat it with the respect it deserves are an essential part of our what makes our system work. Therefore, I do think that the government – at least the specific FBI agents involved with Richard Jewel – are also portrayed in a negative light…but Kathy Scruggs is made to be such a deplorable person, that it’s hard to think it’s not reflective of Eastwood’s own opinion.
Nonetheless, the movie and the story are extremely compelling, and hard not to get caught up in. I really loved Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant, and Kathy Bates as Bobi Jewel. Their performances are really outstanding, and Bates gets to give one hell of a monologue at the end by the way of a press conference. Their roles, alongside Hauser, make the movie and Jewell’s story definitely worth the time to watch the film – even if you don’t love some of the commentaries. Richard Jewel earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.