Two decades later (and the many changes to the media landscape that’ve come with them), the tale of Richard Jewell is one that still teems with relevance. It’s a story about how quickly a person can go from being propped up as a hero to being vilified by the media before all the facts are in. But under the direction of Clint Eastwood, any kind of subtly or nuance gets tossed out the window in favor of unrefined melodrama. Richard Jewell doesn’t paint its characters in rich shades of grey; there are those who inherently know Jewell is misunderstood and quirky, yet a decent man to his core, and everyone else is out to railroad him, spurred on by their ambition and self-interest. What might’ve been a timely parable is instead presented as a capably crafted and acted, yet frustratingly reductive screed in Richard Jewell.

Paul Walter Hauser stars in Richard Jewell as its namesake, an aspiring police officer whose unwavering by-the-book attitude and respect for authority earns him the disdain and mockery of his peers. In spite of his numerous setbacks and still living with his mother Barbara (Kathy Bates), Jewell eventually lands a job working as a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. One night, he uncovers a bomb and heroically helps save the lives of those nearby, turning him into a celebrity overnight. However, when Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) learns the FBI is investigating Jewell as a suspect in the bombing - thanks to a tip from Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), the agent present during the night of the event - Jewell suddenly goes from hero to villain in the media’s eyes. With the FBI bearing down on him, he turns to his onetime work friend, lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), to start fighting back and clear his name.

What makes Richard Jewell somewhat infuriating to watch is the film takes note of the factors complicating its story, then proceeds to ignore them. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s report on Jewell doesn’t make anything up, nor does the FBI actually violate his constitutional rights, so the ingredients are there for a movie that explores the ethics of when information should be made available to the public, and at what point does a government organization cross the line while investigating a potential terrorist threat. Writer Billy Ray was willing to wrestle with these sorts of quandries in his scripts for previous true story-based dramatic thrillers like Shattered Glass and Breach, yet Richard Jewell presents its plot in black and white terms. And since the movie makes it clear Jewell is innocent from the get-go, there’s nothing to challenge audiences and make them wonder if they would’ve shared the media and FBI’s suspicions, had they been there and not already known the truth. It’s a meaningful query, in light of pop culture’s ongoing reexamination of the ’90s and how often undeserving targets (a la Monica Lewinsky) were torn down by media figures of the decade.

Instead, Richard Jewell allows viewers to indulge their hindsight bias and shake their heads disapprovingly whenever anyone onscreen doubts Jewell or views him as a potential danger. Eastwood’s filmmaking leaves something to be desired in other areas too, especially when it comes to pacing and tone. The off-beat hero antics and buddy comedy of its first act clashes with the movie’s subsequent dramatic turn, and the scenes where Jewell’s life is upended are oddly slack and tensionless, making them feel much longer than they are. At the same time, Eastwood is too good a craftsman to turn in a movie that looks subpar, and the combination of Yves Bélanger’s strikingly naturalistic cinematography and Joel Cox’s steady editing ensures Richard Jewell works as an economic piece of storytelling. Like the majority of his recent films, though, one wishes Eastwood has slowed down a little on Richard Jewell and taken the extra time to further refine its sequencing (the standout bombing set piece aside).

It’s the performances that save Richard Jewell from mediocrity, especially those by Hauser and Rockwell. The idiosyncratic Jewell and sardonic Bryant are characters that play to the actors’ respective strengths, and the scenes where it’s just the pair interacting (be they playing arcade games in the ’80s or trying to clear Jewell’s name) are some of the film’s most heartfelt, funny, and compelling. Less satisfying, though, are those by Hamm and Wilde as the almost comical antagonists. The former’s federal agent is a composite character, but framing the FBI’s dubious investigation of Jewell as Shaw’s guilt-driven attempt to cover himself does nothing to make Richard Jewell seem less like a lurid dramatization. As for Wilde’s already-infamous portrayal of Scruggs: one half-expects her to put on a fake mustache to twirl and cackle maniacally as she hounds other people in search of her next big scoop, prior to getting her comeuppance. (That the movie leaves out any mention of her premature death or the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s role in clearing Jewell’s name does nothing to help its case.)

Earlier on in its development, Richard Jewell was set to star Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jewell and Bryant, with Paul Greengrass directing. It’s difficult to not suspect that iteration would’ve not only been just as well-acted as the version that got made, but also a more thrilling and thought-provoking docudrama in the vein of Greengrass’ films like United 93 and 22 July. Unfortunately, Eastwood’s take has all the same problems as the other true story-based movies he’s made over the last decade, and boils “The Ballad of Richard Jewell” (as the Marie Brenner Vanity Fair article the film was partly inspired by is titled) down to a simpler and flatter story that’s guilty of the very sensationalism it aspires to condemn. Jewell’s tale deserved better than the cinematic equivalent of yelling “Fake news!” at a crowd of people.

Richard Jewell is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 129 minutes long and is rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images.

  • Richard Jewell Release Date: 2019-12-13