There are many things that astonish me about Clint Eastwood. His directorial talents being the main one, but his longevity and work ethic in his advanced age is another. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which a nearly 90 year old man can possibly still have something relevant to say.
It’s fair to say that Clint has had his fill of ‘true story’ films lately, in fact, his entire 2010’s can be categorised as his ‘true story’ phase, I’m not sure what attracts him to them, but he sure likes making them. There’s American Sniper, Sully, Jersey Boys (which in a way is a true story), J. Edgar and even last years underwhelming The Mule had its roots in a true story.
We’ve changed focus since then though, we’re no longer documenting the comings and goings of a nonagenarian drug mule, instead focusing on a slightly sadder tale; one that casts its gaze at the media and their endless quest for stories over truth, which is guaranteed to make it relevant in pretty much any age, so long as there are journalists, and vultures to compare them too.
Yes, Richard Jewell is about, shock horror, Richard Jewell, a slightly odd fellow who happened to be the security guard who discovered a bomb in Centennial Park, Atlanta in 1996, and then found himself at the centre of a media storm.
Part of the films focus is how Richard as a person seems to fit a media profile of a ‘wannabe hero’ and in portraying that, the film obviously has to show why people would think that. Not to justify that thinking, but to make us feel like this is a plausible thought process to go through. So of course Richard has a few character quirks, he’s a loner, lives with his mom, and harbours a desire to once again become a police officer, after being dismissed from the force before.
Incidentally, we see Richard in a number of security jobs in the films opening half, and it’s unintentional I’m sure, but the sight of him twirling his baton when he’s clearly a college campus security guard along with a ‘Police’ cap, is hilarious. This might even be to the films detriment, as it makes Richard look more than a little, and I’m trying to find the most eloquent way of putting this, slow. The extent to which he’s willing to fold under pressure to authority is laughable, but it is used later in the narrative, once that very authority he craves turns against him.
I suppose that’s a nice little narrative thread to pull on, the man who so badly wants to be a police officer that he admits to reading the penal code every night being targeted by the very establishment he adores. It does make him look, as I say, a few cards short of a deck, but it also lends him a sort of innocent charm, in a way.
The character he most reminded me of was Raymond Babbitt, Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, you tell him not to talk to the FBI, and the next second he’s trying to be their friend, telling them to take what they want, it’s frustrating, yes, but in a way that endears Richard to the viewer, we feel sorry for him, because he’s a soft-hearted man who’s accused of doing something he wouldn’t even begin to comprehend.
That’s what got me the most about this film, is how it endeared Richard to the audience, it goes that extra mile to show you the makings of his character, even down to showing you his quaint home life at home with his mother, it makes him the most empathetic character in the world, even when he’s being a bit over-zealous with his duties, like trying to search a college students room for drinking on campus, we can’t find it in ourselves to dislike him, because he’s so ineffectual and, above all, good-hearted.
The scenes immediately before and after the explosion are the best examples of this, without his insistence to protocol, the events could have unfolded a lot differently, and people don’t take him seriously, but he rolls with it, and after the event, he’s seen to be so selfless as to make sure others are safe before calling his mother to tell her that he’s okay, and it’s little details like that which really add that bit of polish to his character.
In other places, the writing can be a bit sloppy. I wasn’t a great fan of how the film portrayed Kathy Scruggs or Tom Shaw (Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm, respectively) who play the journalist who first breaks the story of Jewell being a suspect (Scruggs) and the FBI agent pursuing the case. They both seem corrupted and out-of-sync with what their characters should be, even when the obvious is staring them in the face, they rigidly refuse to look deeper, and doggedly pursue Jewell.
Scruggs gets a little bit of retribution, but she doesn’t seem to be a character with an arc, just a part of the plot that is designed to be the antithesis of its lead and be contemptible, even before she breaks the story, her character is written to be such an awful person that we could easily disconnect with her.
These issues aside, I think Richard Jewell really comes together as a film by the last act, it’s competently shot, as we can expect from Eastwood, even though it’s not his best effort, there are still some great uses of framing and light-and-shade. Not to mention some wonderful performances in the mix too.
The constantly excellent Sam Rockwell plays Jewell’s lawyer, Watson Bryant, a character diametrically opposed to Richard, yet he seems to be the only one fighting his corner, Kathy Bates recently received an Oscar nomination for her role as Richard’s mother, who is in many ways the films emotional core, out of her depth just as much as Richard, and even more helpless.
I think the real headline here though should be the breakout performance from Paul Walter Hauser as the titular character; all the redeeming features I’ve mentioned about the character of Richard Jewell can be attributed to his performance, in less-than-capable hands, the character could have been the centre of derision, Hauser makes him a sympathetic everyman, who is confused, angry and hurt by the situation he’s in. He’s a tour-de-force, and he’s what really brings the film together for me.
I think that should be the lasting memory of this film, some shaky writing is redeemed by some wonderful performances, and a sturdy, experienced pair of hands on the reins. It may not reach the heights Eastwood has previously reached, but it gives us a memorable performance within an interesting story. There may be life in the old dog yet.