- Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is a moving look at the hero of the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing.
- When the fact that the FBI considered Jewell a suspect days after the bombing was reported on, his life went to pieces as the media ran with the story.
- Actor Paul Walter Hauser, as Jewell, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.
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“Richard Jewell” (in theaters December 13) is one of those movies that will leave you feeling frustrated, puzzled, angry, but hopefully above all, moved.
Clint Eastwood’s recounting of how a security guard saved thousands when he discovered a bag filled with pipe bombs at the 1996 Summer Olympics, only to become a suspect days later, is a cautionary tale. But it also leaves you feeling grateful that there are people in the world like Richard Jewell.
To pull that off, Eastwood collected a fantastic cast, including Sam Rockwell as the lawyer who defends Jewell, Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother, Olivia Wilde as the reporter who broke the story that Jewell was a suspect, and Jon Hamm as the FBI agent in charge of the case. But above all, it’s the performance by Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell that takes the movie to another level.
Hauser, who is best known for playing Shawn Eckhardt in 2017’s “I, Tonya,” delivers a career-changing role that shouldn’t just put him in the best actor Oscar race, but should make him a frontrunner to win it. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.
In the movie, Jewell is a good-natured guy who is completely engrossed in law enforcement. He’s got books about it and plays shoot-em-up video games (if he’s not on a real shooting range). He even does security for a college with pride and maybe is a bit overzealous (he’s reprimanded for pulling over students outside of school grounds).
That leads us to 1996’s Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Jewell is there working as a security guard at the town square of the games, Centennial Olympic Park. We watch everyone go through the motions as Kenny Rogers performs there one night and the crowd does the “Macarena” the next (it’s the late ’90s, guys, this is what was hip them). But through it all, Jewell’s head is on a swivel, not just looking for anything shady going on but also people in need. A pregnant woman walks by him and he rushes to his bag to offer her a bottled water. It’s that amped-up attitude that makes law enforcement not too concerned when Jewell notifies them of a suspicious bag under a bench. But when it’s revealed that the bag in fact has pipe bombs in it, and thousands around it are able to get far enough away so the injuries are minor when it does explode (one death and 111 injured), there’s no dispute: Richard Jewell is a hero.
By the next morning, Jewell’s fifteen minutes of fame kicks in hard. There’s on-camera interviews on the morning shows and a publishing company wanting his life rights. Jewell returns home to his mother, Bobi (Bates), feeling he’s finally fulfilling his calling: to protect and serve.
Then as quickly as the good times showed up, they go away. Three days after the bombing, on the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it’s reported that the FBI considers Jewell a suspect in the bombing.
As usual with Eastwood movies, he’s not looking to be fancy with the storytelling. He lays it out straight and allows the actors that inhabit it to bring it to life. And do they ever.
Hauser as Jewell is heart-wrenching to watch. You just want to dive into the screen and give the guy a hug (Jewell died at the age of 44 of heart failure from complications of diabetes). Hauser slips in some great comedic moments to lighten the tension, but also plays him as a man with unwavering positivity. That makes it all the more powerful to watch when Jewell finally gets mad and fights back.
Rockwell also gives a fantastic performance as Jewell’s lawyer, Watson Bryant. Some of the best parts of the movie are Hauser and Rockwell playing off each other. It’s almost like an Abbott and Costello routine, but with much higher stakes.
It’s an interesting time to spotlight the heroics by Jewell and the subsequent character assassination of him by the media and law enforcement. This movie feels like it could be weaponized by those who want to sow distrust of the media. I really hope that doesn’t happen. If anything, Eastwood is showing us that rational thinking will always win over knee-jerk reactions. It’s something to take to heart in the “if you’re not first, you’re last” world we live in today.