Churning out films at a steady clip, Clint Eastwood has become as synonymous with no-frills fast turnarounds to get his films into theatres as quickly as possible. Expediency seems to be the most important thing to Eastwood these days. Well, with the exception of projecting a certain kind of white male as an aggrieved victim to the system. Richard Jewell is another in a circling of the drain, with both of these worst behaviors from this treasured American filmmaker, as haphazardly assembled as it is ideologically conceived.
Centered around the true story of the eponymous Jewell (played with complexity by Paul Walter Hauser), and jumping off from Marie Brenner’s reporting in Vanity Fair, the film follows his origins as a security guard with a history of overstepping his authority. During the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, he discovers a bomb in Centennial Park, saving hundreds of lives before its ultimate blast. With his unfortunate history and penchant for guns, he becomes the prime suspect thanks to the overzealousness of reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) and detective Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). This thrusts him into a media spectacle he is ill-equipped to handle, with his only confidants being his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) and a lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) familiar with his kinder nature.
Embarrasingly ill-conceived, Richard Jewell reductively characterizes all of its players to simplistic cliches, even (perhaps especially) its heroes. These characters are simply blunt tools for brazenly destructive viewpoint on the director’s part, positioning authorities and the press as brazen, blood-hungry villains of little substance and broken morals. Meanwhile, the film does even worse by its titular real-life figure. It seems the film is certain in how the audience will perceive him negatively as a hick simpleton, but Eastwood’s bad-faith assumptions on the audience reveals the film’s hypocrisy when he presents his protagonist in the same mocking viewpoint of his accusations towards us.
While most of the cast members flounder (with Hamm and Bates especially at sea with arch demands placed on them), Paul Walter Hauser attempts valiantly to rise above the film’s condescension of Jewell and the audience. After standing out in more farcically-aimed roles in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman, here is shows a more emotionally attuned and compassionate side. He does more heavy lifting to find balance between the layers of the man and the story than the film musters, however. You feel somewhat sad for Hauser, wishing that the film was as interested in offering Jewell as much human complication and dignity as his performance.
All of this amounts to a ghastly cartoon that’s salvaged only by the competent bones of Billy Ray’s screenplay. Instead it feels like Richard Jewell is a more convenient figure to hang its rage than a natural one. This film does indeed portray a man who was falsely persecuted that also had a troublesome, often toxic relationship with being in control. But the film’s failure is in capturing how multiple things can be true, and its Eastwood’s gracelessness that is at fault. That kind of nuance has dwindled away from his work
Another needlessly gauche portraiture of white male victimhood, Richard Jewell might be the final nail in the coffin for the illusion that the legendary filmmaker might return to classic, moving American storytelling. Eastwood hasn’t just lost his narrative prowess or any semblance of taste, he has lost his eye for humanity. Or maybe he just needs to slow down and consider his texts more thoughtfully.