Richard Jewell takes us back to the immediate aftermath of the Centennial Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Imagine saving the lives of hundreds of people celebrating during a concert. This is what one security guard was doing on a late summer night in July 1996. In spite of this, the FBI saw him as the lead suspect in their case. It would be roughly three months before coming to conclude that Richard Jewell wasn’t their guy. That he was innocent. If they did their job, they would have known this from the start.
The major players have their moments of knowing he isn’t the guy. Well, everyone but FBI Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). Richard’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) and Nadya Light (Nina Arianda) time their walk from the park to the phone booth. This is when they know he’s getting “railroaded” by the FBI. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) has a similar epiphany later on. I don’t have to go through the specifics of what happens. Many of us remember watching all the press coverage in 1996. I remember waking up to the news of the bombing the next morning and being glued to the TV.
Paul Walter Hauser delivers one of the top performances of the year. He goes from being a supporting player in I, Tonya to leading this film. In another universe, it would be Jonah Hill playing the role. I’m sorry but after watching Hauser crush it, I can’t really see anybody else in the role.
As for Sam Rockwell, it’s a nice change of pace to see him playing somebody that isn’t a racist. In Watson Bryant, he’s playing an attorney that just wants to help his friend, Radar, from a decade earlier. The film makes sure to set up their relationship early on. In doing so, it also sets up Richard Jewell’s love for law enforcement, too.
The film joins the hot trend in 2019 of being based on a magazine article. In this case, it’s “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner. In reading the Vanity Fair article, one can see where Billy Ray has pulled from the article for scenes in the film. One of these scenes in particular is when Richard Jewell is instructed to read words from the 911 phone call. Brenner’s article is very in-depth and is certainly complementary reading to the film.
What one can assume from reading the article is that Shaw and FBI Agent Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez) are stand-ins for a number of FBI agents. On top of that, there aspects of the film that did happen in real life but in a different way. Watson Bryant wasn’t the only attorney working for Jewell’s freedom. There were others but you wouldn’t know this from the film. Bobi Jewell (Kathy Bates) broke down during a press conference but again, Watson wasn’t standing next to her in real life. Moreover, there’s a question of whether Scruggs behaved as she does in the film if it means getting the story. The film depicts her in a terrible way–writing Scruggs as if she would act sexual if it meant getting the story.
This is the trick when it comes to biopics. One hopes for the film to deliver the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. What we get in the end is a film that doesn’t quite deliver the truth. There are events in the film did happen but other people were standing in the room. And then there’s the whole part of how Kathy Scruggs is portrayed. All this nitpicking notwithstanding, there’s still a well-made film somewhere in here. Clint Eastwood knows how to direct a film and Richard Jewell is without a doubt a much better film than what we saw from him last year…aside from Kathy Scruggs’ portrayal.
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
SCREENWRITER: Billy Ray
CAST: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, and Paul Walter Hauser