Monday 11 October 2021

Movie Review: Richard Jewell (2019)

A biographical drama about a simple man thrust into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons, Richard Jewell examines the perils of over-zealousness.

In 1986, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is a mail delivery clerk at an Atlanta law firm. Attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) shows some compassion towards Richard, who is overweight and awkwardly over-intrusive, but also respectful of government institutions and planning a law enforcement career.

Ten years later Richard remains positive despite being fired from a campus security job for overstepping boundaries. Still living with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), Richard secures an Olympic Games security guard position and is assigned to Centennial Park where crowds gather for nightly concerts. FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and ambitious Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) are also covering events at the park.

During a concert Richard spots a suspicious package, raises the alarm, then helps move crowds away. The bomb explodes, causing casualties, but Richard's actions save lives. Initially hailed a hero, the FBI soon suspect Richard is the bomber with a personal glory motive. The suspicions are leaked to Kathy and she splashes the story on the newspaper's front page, turning Richard's life into a living hell. He reaches out to Watson, the only lawyer he knows, for help.

Based on real events, Richard Jewell is the tragedy of a well-meaning ordinary man caught in a maelstrom. Written by Billy Ray and directed by Clint Eastwood, the film maintains focus on Jewel, revealing a kind if slightly tactless personality, always seeking to serve even if his methods veer towards pushy. He achieves a moment of genuine heroism; it's snatched from him by officious incompetence.

Richard displays a life-long streak of over-eagerness. But the damage is caused by the toxic combination of an incompetent investigation adopting underhanded tactics, the unconstrained ambition of a newspaper willing to reveal the name of a suspect with no corroboration, and finally senseless media hordes respecting no boundaries and engaging in character assassination and conviction by innuendo before Jewell is even charged (he never was). 

The FBI's agent Tom Shaw is a composite, and Eastwood skips past the agency's detective work beyond suspecting the wrong man. Kathy Scruggs is the real journalist who ran with the story based on a leak, and here she deploys naked seduction in pursuit of a career-making story.

At 129 minutes, this is a weighty drama, and the pacing falters after the cloud of suspicion settles on Bobi's house. The subsequent defensive actions and fight-backs are orchestrated by lawyer Watson Bryant as Richard takes a back seat, his respect for law and order rubbing against the government-instigated wrath against him. But thanks to an elegant Paul Walter Hauser performance, Richard Jewell enshrines the legacy of a man who did right, only for others to fumble their responsibilities.

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