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In Theaters: RICHARD JEWELL (2019)

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RICHARD JEWELL 
(US - 2019)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Billy Ray. Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez, Dylan Kussman, Niko Nicotera, Wayne Duvall, David Shae, Mike Pniewski, Charles Green, Billy Slaughter, Eric Mendenhall. (R, 131 mins)

After granting himself not one but two threesomes in 2018's surprisingly lighthearted geriatric drug trafficking saga THE MULE, Clint Eastwood returns to his unofficial "American Heroes" series with RICHARD JEWELL. Late-period Eastwood has been maddeningly inconsistent, from the hagiography of AMERICAN SNIPER to his playing fast and loose with the facts in SULLY to the completely botched THE 15:17 TO PARIS, where he couldn't possibly have been less engaged with the material. Eastwood's always worked fast (RICHARD JEWELL began filming in late June 2019, and it's already out), but there's been an increasing sloppiness to his films as he's gotten older, almost like he's more concerned with getting it done than getting it right, but at 89, he seems to be mostly back on his game with RICHARD JEWELL. Helping immensely is Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell (1962-2007), the security guard who discovered a pipe bomb in Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics, and quickly went from hero to prime suspect thanks to an anxious FBI and an overzealous media. Hauser, also memorable as Shawn Eckardt, the hapless "bodyguard" and "terrorism expert" involved in the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, in I, TONYA, turns in the best performance Eastwood's gotten out of an actor in years, fearlessly capturing all facets of Jewell, whether it's his insecurities, his flaws, his eagerness to respect authority, and his foolish belief that the FBI agents investigating him are "fellow law enforcement." The well-intentioned Jewell is a wannabe cop who was dismissed from the sheriff's department and later fired from a university after student complaints and for overstepping his bounds, even pulling people over off-campus when he suspected them of DUI. He studies the penal code on his nights off and clings to his pipe dream of becoming a police officer. He's encouraged by his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), who almost certainly realizes it's never going to happen for Richard, but she loves him too much to hurt his feelings.






Jewell's life changed on July 27, 1996 when he was working security and discovered a mysterious backpack under a bench near the sound tower in Centennial Park, which was packed with people attending a Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert. Initially dismissed by cops at the event aware of his history of being overzealous, Jewell persisted until someone in charge opened the backpack and found the bomb. It went off, killing one and wounding 111 others. Jewell was immediately hailed as a hero who saved lives but FBI investigators, led by composite characters Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Dan Bennet (Ian Gomez) start putting together a profile that points to Jewell, basing it on his obsession with becoming a cop, his desire to be a hero, his being fired from past security jobs, his large size, that he lives with his mother, etc. Over drinks, Shaw leaks to ambitious Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) that they're looking at Jewell and the paper runs with it on the front page. Within three days of the bombing, Jewell is now the prime suspect being hounded by the media and Shaw, who has no actual evidence but keeps trying to trick Jewell into incriminating himself. With nowhere to turn and with the FBI determined to pin the bombing on him, Jewell calls mercurial attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who was at a law firm a decade earlier where Jewell worked as a supply room clerk and, as Jewell tells him, "you were the only one who talked to me and treated me like a human being."


Eastwood being engaged with the material makes a difference, and his fury over the treatment of Jewell, who was eventually exonerated three months later (Eric Rudolph was captured in 2003 and confessed to Centennial Park and numerous other bombings) is palpable. That's perhaps to a fault, especially in regards to the way the film handles Scruggs, the real reporter who broke the story. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray (SHATTERED GLASS) came under fire as the film was released for their depiction of Scruggs, an actual person who died in 2001 and isn't here to defend herself, offering sex in exchange for a hot tip from Hamm's Shaw, a fictional character created for the film. There's plenty of blame to lay at the feet of Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal Constitution without resorting to cheap-shot slut-shaming or turning her into a vamping, strutting, bitch-on-wheels femme fatale out of an early '90s straight-to-video erotic thriller. Wilde's performance as Scruggs is absolutely ridiculous in its cartoon villainy (made even more hollow by her later teary realization that she's been instrumental in railroading Jewell before promptly disappearing from the film), and here once again, Eastwood is overdoing it to further stack the deck against an American Hero™, like the guy heading the NTSB inquiry in SULLY doing everything short of twirling a mustache in his ruthless quest to nail Sully Sullenberger's balls to the wall for the Miracle on the Hudson, a sentiment that necessitated Sullenberger requesting the names of those characters be changed because that's not how they treated him. Making her the cold-blooded Mean Girl of the AJC newsroom also doesn't seem an accurate representation from what her colleagues have said, but with her cackling and preposterously evil interpretation of Scruggs, Wilde often appears to be auditioning for a future role as Cruella de Vil in a 101 DALMATIANS reboot she thinks might happen a two or three decades down the road. I don't think Wilde's performance is entirely her fault--this is how she's been directed to play it--but it's the one big misstep that Eastwood makes in an otherwise fine film.


So yes, the Scruggs scenes are a major detriment to RICHARD JEWELL, but Hauser, Bates, and Rockwell are so good that they manage to wash away the bad aftertaste. After seeing his work here, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Jewell, though Jonah Hill was initially attached when the project went into development as THE BALLAD OF RICHARD JEWELL back in 2014 with Leonardo DiCaprio as Bryant and Paul Greengrass set to direct (Hill and DiCaprio have producer credits here). His being generally little-known works to Hauser's advantage, and his resemblance to Jewell is striking (Eastwood uses real footage of Jewell in news clips on TV, and it's hard to tell the difference between subject and actor). But even beyond that, Hauser just brilliantly captures the little moments where the eager-to-please Jewell just can't stop himself from opening his big mouth, despite being repeatedly admonished by Bryant to say nothing. When the FBI team comes in to his mother's apartment and starts ransacking the place, even taking her Tupperware and underwear as evidence, he's still agreeably offering "If you need help finding anything, let me know." The expression on Hauser's face, regret over being a willing doormat combined with the faint hope that the agents view him as an equal, as Jewell can't even look at Bryant or his mom as they glare at him, speaks volumes. Also worthy of mention in a scene-stealing supporting role is Nina Arianda as Nadya, Bryant's no-nonsense secretary and legal aid, who very quietly becomes the heart and soul of the unlikely Jewell support team that also includes his only friend, Dave Dutchess (Niko Nicotera) who's hauled in by the FBI as a possible accomplice, with agents also threatening to start a rumor that he and Jewell are lovers (that Jewell is very adamant about clearing up that falsehood is another risky move for woke 2019, but it's true to the character). With a mishandling of Scruggs that's irresponsible at best and misogynistic at worst, RICHARD JEWELL is a decidedly flawed film, but at the end of the day, it's one of the better offerings from this latter period of Eastwood's legendary career, thanks mostly to a committed and often quite moving performance by Paul Walter Hauser.


Paul Walter Hauser and Clint Eastwood on the set. 


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