Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: "Richard Jewell"

Everybody undervalued Richard Jewell, starting with himself.

By all accounts he was a decent, hardworking man who embraced his role as protector at times too fervently -- particularly during those periods when he worked as a security guard at a college or entertainment venue. Jewell started and ended his career wearing a badge, and knew firsthand that people respect someone with a uniform and gun more than some sweaty dude in a white polo shirt.

So when Jewell discovered a backpack at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and alerted the authorities before it exploded, saving countless lives, what happened next was perhaps not so surprising. People saw an obese, slow-talking man with a Southern accent and decided he could not be a hero as initially thought.

“Richard Jewell” is director Clint Eastwood’s ambitious and successful attempt to rescue the reputation of Jewell, he was accused of being the bomber without a scintilla of actual evidence. It also tries to cast the FBI and especially the media as the villains, and here it’s less skillful and certainly heavy-handed.

Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell in a performance that is spot-on both physically and spiritually. He does not try to portray Jewell as a saint or a smart man -- things he surely was not. Rather, Hauser shows us a simple, authentic soul who persevered despite that fact that many people saw him as a pathetic loser.

He knew this, and trudged on.

Take the scene right before Jewell sounds the alert on the backpack. He goes over to confront a group of underage teens drinking and breaking bottles against the media tower at Centennial Park. The boys completely laugh him off, call him a bunch of insulting names tied to his weight, and continue their revelry.

The look on Hauser’s face as he walks away from this scene is telling. He does not react to the insults, because Jewell has heard them a million times before, but simply goes about doing his job. He fetches the cops, who chase off the drunks, and insists they check out the pack nearby, even though most think it’s just full of beer.

The film, written by Billy Ray based on a book by Marie Brenner, takes us through the initial harrowing events of the explosion and aftermath. It’s tense stuff. But it really kicks into high gear when Sam Rockwell rides in as his lawyer, Watson Bryant, after it becomes clear the feds, lacking any substantial clues, have focused on Jewell using the “lone bomber” profile, which had been much in the news back then.

Jewell calls Bryant because he’s the only lawyer he knows, having briefly worked together years before. Bryant (based on actual lawyer Lin Wood) is cantankerous and foul-mouthed, and barely ekes by on personal injury cases. But the way the FBI leans on Jewell, he needs someone ornery in his corner.

They share a great scene where Watson blows up at the way Jewell is deferential to the authorities, calling everyone “sir” and even offering to help while they search the apartment he shares with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates, terrific as always). Why aren’t you as mad as I am, Watson demands. Jewell finally gets mad enough to insist that anger just isn’t his way.

Jon Hamm plays the FBI agent leading the investigation, and Olivia Wilde is Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who first broke the story that Jewell was a suspect. In an odd choice, they kept Scruggs’ name the same as the actual person while changing that of most everyone else.

You may have heard the movie suggests -- without evidence -- that Scruggs traded sexual favors in exchange for scoops, one of the vilest and cheapest charges leveled at female reporters. Both she and Jewell died at a young age, so she’s not around to defend herself.

The movie doesn’t touch on the fact that Jewell and his attorney ended up suing many media outlets for their inept handling of the case, winning settlements from nearly all of them. “Richard Jewell” works spectacularly as a condemnation of a mass media that went from Point A to Point Z on a story without bothering to do any of the legwork in between to connect them.

It’s too bad Eastwood and his team did the exact same thing in portraying the journalist on the case. One poor turn deserves another, apparently.

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