Clint Eastwood has established himself as the foremost teller of true stories about sad, white, American men. American Sniper, Sully and The 15:17 to Paris ripped tales from the headlines in order to strike a blow squarely at the appeal of Middle America. It’s too simplistic to say Eastwood makes movies aimed at Trumpland, but there’s certainly a particular groove to his work – a mistrust of the Establishment and a celebration of the ordinary man.
Richard Jewell slides neatly into the established tracks of the Eastwood oeuvre. The man behind that title, as portrayed brilliantly by BlacKkKlansman and I, Tonya supporting player Paul Walter Hauser, is the ideal Eastwood hero. He’s a patriot obsessed with law and order, until the system turns round and attacks him – a zero to hero to zero trajectory with righteous injustice at its heart. This is the sort of story Eastwood can tell in his sleep and, although the movie is undoubtedly solid, it often feels like there’s an element of playing it safe here.
Jewell’s fame began during his time as a security guard working at the 1986 Olympics in Atlanta. During a celebration in Olympic Park, he came across a suspicious package and raised the alarm, causing many people to move out of the way of what turned out to be an explosive device. Despite initial praise for his heroism, Jewell became the focus of the FBI’s investigation – embodied in the movie by Jon Hamm’s cynical agent – and a media storm was whipped up around his personality and private life.
Hauser’s performance is sensational, embodying the cumbersome strangeness of Jewell – a man with absolute confidence in his beliefs, mingled with intense anxiety and social awkwardness. There’s a stillness and an odd calm to Hauser’s portrayal, which is refreshingly free of the sort of tics and flourishes that a lesser actor might have inserted for a more showy performance. Hauser is convincing at every turn, in a performance that should make him a bona fide star.
The scaffolding around Hauser is rather variable. Kathy Bates has nabbed an Oscar nomination for her role as Jewell’s horror-stricken mum – a woman who’s deeply troubled by the FBI’s attitude towards her Tupperware – but it’s a rather thankless role, other than in several grand-standing scenes. Sam Rockwell, meanwhile, delivers his best performance in years as the “very loud lawyer” hired by Jewell, years after they formed a friendship during one of his previous jobs. Rockwell’s character is out of his depth fighting a huge terrorism case, but battles his way through with cocksure, foul-mouthed bravado in a way that suits Rockwell to a tee.
However, there’s an issue with Richard Jewell in its lack of subtlety. The film is clearly in its protagonist’s corner from the start, even though it deliberately attempts to muddy the notion of whether he could’ve planted the bomb, for the benefit of anyone watching without knowing the true story – well-known in the USA, but obscure elsewhere. Eastwood portrays the FBI as vicious snakes, with the press embodied by Olivia Wilde’s journalist Kathy Scruggs.
The portrayal of Scruggs is deeply troubling, and has indeed proved controversial since the film’s American release. She was a real journalist, who sadly passed away in 2001, and so the decision of Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray to portray her as a whirlwind of anarchy and sexuality who was willing to trade her body for a story is a questionable one. At best, it’s lazy screenwriting while, at worst, it’s a gross distortion of a woman’s legacy.
It’s part of a broader issue with Richard Jewell, which trades in a very clear demarcation between heroes and villains. There’s no room for either Wilde’s reporter or Hamm’s FBI investigator to realise the error of their ways. Like a tsunami, they surge through Jewell’s life leaving only destruction behind them, only to ebb away into nothing once their damage has been done. Eastwood appears to see anyone outside of his ordinary, blue-collar heroes to be a caricature of villainy – and his movie suffers as a result.
But there’s no denying that Eastwood deals in robust filmmaking, helped by Ray’s precise script, which works the procedural details nicely around Hauser’s portrait of a man’s declining sanity. This might be a defiantly conservative story, but it’s one that is anchored in the humanity of a man and his mother, struggling against powers they cannot match. Richard Jewell is a movie in which a box of pen-marked Tupperware forms the emotional conclusion of the narrative – and it somehow works.
There are problematic elements everywhere, but Hauser’s performance is undeniable and Eastwood is too strong a director for his work not to pack a wallop. The problem is that we’ve all felt that particular wallop a few too many times before.
Dir: Clint Eastwood
Scr: Billy Ray
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm
Prd: Jennifer Davisson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood, Jonah Hill, Jessica Meier, Kevin Misher, Tim Moore
DOP: Yves Bélanger
Music: Arturo Sandoval
Run time: 131 mins
Richard Jewell is in UK cinemas from 31st January.