What’s impressive about Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood’s latest common-man-hero epic, is its transition from casual realism to profound feeling. It’s a period film that addresses our current distress. Atlanta security guard Jewell (played by Paul Walter Hauser) was unfairly hounded by the media and the FBI in 1996, as a suspect in the terrorist bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. Jewell’s story continues Eastwood’s winning streak that began with American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, and The Mule.
These fact-based chronicles are out of step with the wish fulfillment of Hollywood’s current social-justice trend. Movies such as Spotlight, Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and Green Book sentimentalize victim groups; they’re a perversion of the social-consciousness genre, turning it into an exercise of self-righteous showing-off that prevents our understanding of political polarization. Eastwood shrewdly chooses average, unlikely individuals and then narrates the unique, harrowing experiences that set them apart. He uncovers aspects of our national life that might otherwise go misunderstood or unappreciated. Avoiding George Clooney, Matt Damon, Sean Penn, Edward Norton crusader-rabbit pomposity, Eastwood’s movies are not so much political as they are morally conscious.
By going to the past, Eastwood finds, with succinct brilliance, what is troubling and confounding in our contemporary government and media: the story of a wronged man told against the story of how terrible people can be as they deliberately do him harm.
Eastwood never gets partisan, yet he doesn’t make things easy; Jewell is shown as annoying, even aggravating. Hauser, a little-known character actor (he was memorably aggravating in I, Tonya), gives an amazingly disciplined, not-obvious performance. Hauser’s overweight Jewell looks like a human balloon — he stands and sways on drumstick legs with a swollen belly and a puffy, red-cheeked face with Santa Claus eyes. People feel superior to him, with his low-caste and seeming lack of self-control. They misunderstand his intelligence because he is just irritatingly transparent. Guilelessness makes him look suspicious to a society that prizes arrogant aggression.
Screenwriter Billy Ray (who wrote the 2003 journalism exposé Shattered Glass) has conceived a truly independent protagonist. Jewell is a Jared Hess outsider like Napoleon Dynamite, a Southerner whose deeply held beliefs (his gun collection recalls the guys in The 15:17 to Paris) don’t fit the standard image of the American hero. Jewell says, “I believe in law and order, sir. You can’t have a country without it.”
It’s the pretty people in the movie, FBI agent Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who are unscrupulous — a ploy that proves Eastwood’s rhetorical genius. These sexy careerists prejudge Jewell. (“He fits the profile: a frustrated white male. He lives with his mother.”) They epitomize the era’s prevailing snideness — seen daily on the major networks and in congressional kangaroo courts.
Eastwood and Ray understand that a “savage twist of fate,” as described by Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), unleashes the “horrific forces of U.S. government and media.” That’s not cynicism, it’s tragedy.
In this way, Richard Jewell brings edifying contrast to the current impeachment show trials. Washington’s and the media’s tactics of twisted logic, unrelenting accusation, and defamation confirm the antagonism that Eastwood and Ray dramatize. Maverick attorney Bryant keeps a poster in his office that reads, I fear government more than I fear terrorism. His Eastern Bloc assistant Nadya (Nina Arianda) warns, “Where I came from, when the government says they’re guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent.”
We see typical bureaucratic temperament when officious FBI action becomes deceptive or hostile, and we see how that dishonesty can be shared by the venal journalists with whom they collude. Wilde plays Scruggs as ruthless — like Faye Dunaway in Network — trading sex for career advantage. But arrogant personal bias is her worst offense. “You lead the public, that’s what you do!” Bryant accuses her. The way she scoffs at his sexual innuendo shows that she is indeed capable of any indignity. These “professional” moments are as revelatory as the scenes of Jewell’s invaded, broken home life and the shattered sense of security his mother (Kathy Bates) experiences. “I don’t know how to protect you from them,” she cries.
When Eastwood goes this deep, Richard Jewell becomes us — especially when we are skeptical, fearful yet hopeful, despite the spectacle of rogue and unaccountable government and media.
When Jewell walks out of an FBI interrogation and briefly looks from the corner of his eyes at his heartless adversaries, whom he respected for their civil duties, there’s a flash of humility and grace — of wily virtue — that’s better than casting blame. It reminded me of the extraordinarily subtle Charlie Parker portrait that Eastwood created with Forest Whitaker in Bird (1988), and that memory brought me back from Eastwood’s shrewd — desperately needed – political insight to appreciate his artful compassion.
Take the documentary footage of ailing Muhammad Ali, shakily lighting Atlanta’s Olympic torch, as a perfect symbol. Eastwood reminds us all of our fragile humanity — and a larger, existential view of unfairness, justice, and fate. This late phase of Eastwood’s directorial career is his best because he resists moralistic grandstanding to achieve plainness and depth.
Richard Jewell is like the finest, boldest, streamlined, and conscientious B-movie. As a nation, we are currently caught in the middle of a worse nightmare than what Jewell experienced, and it’s unlikely that “official” historians will ever report it as accurately as Eastwood does. His film ponders a history of our future.