Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is yet another sturdy, classical work from one of America’s greatest filmmakers.
Based on a 1997 Vanity Fair story by Marie Brenner, the movie is remarkably similar to 2016’s “Sully,” another great Eastwood film about heroism met unfairly with suspicion. It’s a complex look at what should have been a simple situation.
It begins in the early 1980s, when Richard (Paul Walter Hauser) works in an office, taking out the trash and stocking supplies. Lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) befriends him after Richard thoughtfully fills his drawer with Snickers bars.
Richard dreams of becoming a police officer, but by 1996, he’s employed as a security guard in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics. At a concert in Centennial Olympic Park, Richard spots a suspicious backpack (containing a pipe bomb) and helps clear the area, saving countless lives.
An FBI investigative team led by Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), lacking leads, decides Richard is the prime suspect. Apparently, he fits a certain profile of criminals that plant bombs and then pretend to find them.
Perhaps worse, Shaw has drinks in a bar with a fiery Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), and spills the beans. She breaks the story in the morning news, and suddenly Richard goes from hero to a pariah.
His mother (Kathy Bates), who idolizes TV newsman Tom Brokaw, is shocked and heartbroken when even her hero talks badly about her son.
So Richard calls up Watson Bryant, struggling with his own new law firm, for help, and the fight begins to clear his name.
Compared to “Sully,” the 129-minute “Richard Jewell” feels chunkier. “Sully” was a tight 96 minutes, beginning with a gripping aerial accident and emergency landing, and relying on Tom Hanks’ considerable charisma.
The hero of “Richard Jewell” is a more difficult sell. Hauser (who played a dim, shady redneck in “I, Tonya” and a racist in “BlacKkKlansman”) appears as an overweight hayseed with a mustache, perhaps a little pathetic and not too bright.
Yet Hauser superbly conveys the character’s innate goodness and unflagging hope. It’s easy to make fun of a man that lives with his mom; it’s hard to scoff when a man loves his mom as much as Richard does.
The movie’s other masterstroke is Richard’s friendship with Watson. By allowing Rockwell to exercise the full range of his shabby, wiry, quick-witted charm, and to emphasize his loyalty to Richard, is to shine a brighter light on the hero.
While Eastwood is a master of simple, understated mise-en-scene, and “Richard Jewell” is no exception, the movie’s real gift lies in its excellent performances. Bates has received a Golden Globe nomination for her strong work as the mother, touchingly dismayed at what’s happening, but still making sure everyone’s fed.
Although she, Hauser and Rockwell comprise the movie’s heart, it’s surprising that Hamm and Wilde are allowed to shine.
Yet the movie’s portrayal of reckless reporting has pushed buttons among Scruggs’ friends and the journalism community, particularly those at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who are angered over the portrayal of Scruggs, who died in 2001, as someone who would trade sex for a story.
They have threatened Warner Bros. and Eastwood with a defamation lawsuit, unless a statement is issued, “publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” as well as a “prominent disclaimer,” according to a letter sent by the paper’s attorney Martin Singer.
Despite Eastwood’s disregard of facts, “Richard Jewell” asks a basic question about human nature, wondering how accusing and blaming people can turn good actions into bad deeds.
It’s the source of Eastwood’s greatness. His films yearn for simplicity in life, but he understands the complexities in between.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde
Written by: Billy Ray
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes