Movie review: Hero becomes suspect in cautionary tale 'Richard Jewell'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Jan 19 2020 09:04 AM

A scene from 'Richard Jewell.' Handout

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was an odd fellow. At the age of 34, he was single, obese, not too bright, can't hold a job and still lived with his mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates). In 1996, he worked as a security guard at Centennial Park where they held concerts for the Atlanta Olympics. One night, he noticed an abandoned bag on the grounds near the tower which was later confirmed to be a bomb. 

Richard was hailed as a hero at first. However, FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) leaked to a persistent reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) that they were investigating Richard as a possible suspect for the bombing. This was because he fit the stereotype of a false hero -- someone who purposefully caused an emergency so that he can be there to save people from it. When Scruggs went for it and made it headline news, Richard's life was turned upside down. 

"Richard Jewell" is a strong statement against how irresponsible law enforcement and mass media together can destroy one man's life. These two organizations were expected to uphold only the truth, and not act upon mere suspicions unsupported by reliable evidence. There was no way that one powerless private citizen can stand up against these two superpowers when they bear down on him with all their collective might. 

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Being Richard Jewell was a thankless role for lead actor Paul Walter Hauser. While it is the role of his lifetime, it could lock him into similar roles of redneck losers. His rather low-key performance of a low-key yet challenging role failed to get the critical acclaim it deserved. Kathy Bates can really spin her own magic out of any small familiar role, like this one as a loving supporting mother. Her plea for her son's innocence in that presscon scene alone was enough for her to bag an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. 

Sam Rockwell is in his serio-comic element as Watson Bryant, a small-time attorney who stepped up from his sleepy practice to be Richard's attorney in a case of national interest. Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde were effectively slimy in their roles of a prideful FBI agent (a composite character) and a unscrupulous news writer (controversially based on a real-life journalist), respectively.

As director of true-to-life stories like "American Sniper" or "Sully," Clint Eastwood is very traditional in his style of storytelling -- cut and dry, no fancy embellishments. While his simple style certainly fit these types of stories, the viewing experience feel bland or mechanical at times. In "Richard Jewell," the blocking of the crowd in the concert scenes looked awkward and unrealistic, with a long Macarena dance scene to boot. The interposition of Bryant's investigation of how much time Richard had to walk to the payphone with Michael Johnson's record-breaking 200m dash victory felt forced. 

However, it cannot be denied though that Eastwood effectively showed the horrors of a trial by publicity, with its urgent cautionary message to the government and the press not to carelessly throw unsubstantiated accusations casually without due regard to the constitutional rights of the persons involved. 

With the dawn of social media, the message is all the more valid now as it was before, in the US, our country and all over the world.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."