Still working at the age of 89, legendary actor turned director Clint Eastwood’s latest piece is Richard Jewell, a true crime drama that revisits one of his recurring themes; the American hero. Set during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, the plot centres around the bomb attack on Centennial Park. Whilst working as a security guard at the event, do-gooder Richard (Paul Walter Hauser) spots the suspicious package and alerts the authorities, saving hundreds of lives from the explosion. After the tragedy, sleazy FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) fronts the investigation into finding the perpetrator and ruthless reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) will stop at nothing for a front-page exclusive. When the finger of blame starts to turn towards Richard, he calls upon his lawyer friend Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to clear his name.
In the build up to the bombing, Eastwood conjures up a sticky hot tension in the height of summer. With the use of colour and music, there’s a claustrophobia in the way in which the Centennial Park scenes are crafted in particular, and this makes for uncomfortable but compelling viewing. However, the film’s real drama comes in the aftermath of the horrific event. The cynical narrative illustrates how someone’s persona can be put on a pedestal then ripped down again in a matter of days by the media, and this angle probably carries even more relevance in today’s climate. Billy Ray’s combative script is based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article from 1997 and though it may contain some historical embellishments, it provides a solid platform for the performances to develop.
Known only for some recent minor roles, relative newcomer Paul Walter Hauser does a lot of the heavy lifting in the titular role of the wannabe law enforcer. Complex and not always likeable, he has a ridiculousness to him that brings some humour into the film. He has his questionable quirks, but he represents the everyman, so the nightmarish damnation of his character is gripping to witness.
Propping up the lead role are some fantastic supporting performances; Rockwell, Hamm, and Bates are all terrific, each tapping into the various sides of Jewell through their often emotionally charged exchanges. We’ve seen Sam Rockwell in a number of brilliant turns over the years, but this is arguably his best performance to date. There’s a rich depth to sarcastic cargo shorts-wearing, snickers-chomping attorney Watson Bryant, and Rockwell gives him a casual charisma that is fascinating to watch.
Eastwood presents the horrible fickleness of heroism with Richard Jewell, an intense and engaging retelling of a dark chapter in American history. He himself is undoubtedly a Hollywood hero, an icon of cinema, and yet as a filmmaker he strives to shine a light on the lesser known figures, focusing his directorial lens on important stories that deserve to be told.