After the universally panned The 15:17 to Paris and the passably bland The Mule, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was curtains for Clint Eastwood’s career as a director. Which makes it all the more surprising to see the veteran filmmaker back so soon in his compelling, if a little contrived, new feature Richard Jewell.
Produced by Eastwood and written by Billy Ray (Overlord, Gemini Man, Terminator: Dark Fate), Richard Jewell is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenne. Starring Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates – Bates has since nabbed a best supporting nomination for her brilliant portrayal of Jewell’s mother Bobbi – the film tells the story of how a lowly security guard found himself falsly accused of domestic terrorism.
We first meet Richard (Hauser) in 1986 as he is working as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm. Nerdy and obsessed with law enforcement, Richard builds a strong rapport with Watson Bryan (Rockwell), one of the firm’s attorneys. Years later, Jewell has now made the transition from dreaming about being cop to being a rent-a-cop at a university campus. After being fired from yet another role for his overzealous approach to law enforcement, Richard finally finds permanent work as a security guard in his hometown of Atlanta.
When a bomb goes off in a park on his watch during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Richard is first congratulated for his bravery, becoming an overnight national celebrity. The hapless security guard however soon finds himself as the prime suspect of the bombing when the FBI take charge of the investigation. Together with his mother Bobbi and lawyer Watson, Richard must prove his innocence to overzealous FBI agent (Jon Hamm) or end up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
Presenting a solidly executed, beautifully acted and thoroughly well researched biopic, Eastwood is clearly at his best when he celebrates the little people he feels need a voice. And although there are rather glaring contrivances peppered throughout the narrative, notably the implausible depiction of a local reporter (Olivia Wilde) as a vampish man-eater, you simply can’t help but root for both the film and its protagonists to get one over the man.
This being Eastwood, the notoriously right-wing filmmaker can’t resist the odd dig at the establishment with some not so subtly placed confederate flags and anti government propaganda. Having said that, here he manages to dial down his agenda for long enough to let his cast do all the talking.